One of the greatest strengths of cinema is its ability to place us into someone else’s life. Many art forms do that, but something about cinema makes it easier to inhabit the sensory world of a character, which can often provide the most poignant insight into his or her reality. However, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles struggles with the boundaries of cinema’s potential to understand the life of a character.
The film follows the titular Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) as she performs daily chores. She’s a widower occupied by simplest house duties: washing dishes, making beds, shopping for food and a vast array of other activities. As she works in silence, it’s easy to project feelings and ideas about who Jeanne is and what her values are.
Her only child, Sylvain (Jan Decorte), lives with her and she spend a good deal of time taking care of him. A portion of the movie is dedicated to her cleaning and having her son’s shoes repaired. Her servitude to her son expresses a soft, caring love. She refuses to remarry, and one could assume that means she has romantic feelings of love that goes beyond death and this life.
After lulling the audience into the mechanical tempo of housework, Akerman throws a wrench into the works. The film breaks preconceptions of who Jeanne is and the idea is presented that Jeanne that cannot be understood by following her daily activities. In true arthouse fashion, these actions are never explained. Jeanne evolves from a simple widowed housewife into something more complicated and mysterious. The new dimension added to her character challenges the notion that experiencing a life is the same as understanding it.
From a socio-political perspective, this is a powerful statement on the invisibility of the role of women in the house. Most of the film is consume with activities that would take place in the background of conversations of other films. In Jeanne Dielman, the activity themselves become the center of attention; no conversation is there to distract the audience from the task at hand. And yet to make the assumption that Jeanne’s work defines her is to restrict and constrict her identity to only a housewife.
Within the context of cinema, it’s a reminder that seeing and hearing someone’s life is only exposing the audience to an external reality. While people do live in the context of the senses they experience to assume that simply observing these inputs will inform the audience of the character’s life is a mistake.
Jeanne’s silence is a reminder that there is an internal life often left absent from cinema. Some filmmakers try to fill this gap through the use of narration. The use of prose works better in the novel, but fails to take advantage of the audio/visual strengths of cinema. Without this internal life, there is a gap, one in which the characters in cinema are left as unknowable.
Paradoxically, Jeanne Dielman speaks the loudest through its silence. The absence of interior life creates a void that challenges the assumptions of who Jeanne is and what she feels. It leads to a frustrating desire to want to understand. The best kind of cinema challenges, and the challenge of Jeanne Dielman is to reach out and understand those in silence because one is never sure what is going on in a person’s mind.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing