Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels

Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975): The onset of madness measured in domestic increments, in which burned potatoes can assume the status of crisis, tricks can be turned while dinner is cooking, panic follows the discovery of somebody else sitting at your favourite café table, and a missing button leads to murder.

Made when writer-director Chantal Ackerman (1950-2015) was only 25, Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels remains one of the more astonishingly assured and formally challenging first features ever made, a catalyst for emergent feminist criticism, key template for art film aesthetics to follow, and one of the most astute movies about the sheer hell of boredom and denial. Inarguably true as it may be that the movie’s focus on a bourgeois housewife-turned-hooker (the formidably convincing Delphine Seyrig) gradually coming undone in her apartment qualifies it as a key work of feminist art and social criticism, it’s also possible to watch Jeanne Dielmann as a more generalized, but no less devastating, account of how ritual and repetition can provide a lid for a pot simmering with unacknowledged anxiety, but can’t do a thing to keep it from boiling over.

If the foundation of a life rests on those routines we so meticulously observe Jeanne carrying out in real time — and from a rigorously maintained spatial distance — things can collapse for the want of a button. Jeanne’s actions are recorded clinically, patiently and unemotionally, at least as far as the film is concerned — our emotional relationship with the film is something else entirely, and critical to its effect. The surface ’emptiness’ of the film functions as a kind of vacuum in which our own response is instrumental to the experience of Jeanne Dielmann. Here lies the brilliance of the film once you’ve recalibrated one’s expectations to the film’s microcosmic rhythms: there’s no such thing as nothing happening ever, and drama is entirely relative. If your existence depends on denying the existential torture of unending routine by praying routine will keep that lid on, drama can be reduced to the sound of threads snapping. As much as anything, Akerman’s film is a seminal study in mental disintegration as it occurs in the subjective. Over the course of the film’s three days, in which Jeanne cleans, cooks, dusts, shops and sits stiffly over bowls of soup with her obliviously entitled teenage son, time is dispensed in such obsessively calibrated moments of routine that an afternoon can feel not only like a lifetime but a heroic struggle, and the actions themselves — all expressions of an insistence on labour and rote routine as defenses against utter despair — gradually acquire the ominous power of a bomb ticking or fuse sizzling its way to the big bang.

If you can synch your own rhythms with the movie’s — and more than one observer has pointed out how the film makes one’s own spectatorial responses part of its subject — Jeanne Dielmann offers an experience rarely equalled, frequently attempted and never quite so emotionally forceful in movies made anywhere, any time. Much classical European modernist filmmaking might have addressed emptiness, time and the madness of ordinary lives, but never with quite the empathy, immediacy and cruelly tightening sense of inevitability as this. Surrender to it and the boredom you might feel gives way to the terror Jeanne feels when the ritual stops working and that lid starts to rattle. Monumental. (Criterion)


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