Boredom in real time


n+1 on experimental film, Jeanne Dielman.

Chantal Akerman has given countless interviews. In most of these, even the most recent ones, she is still asked about Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, her canonical 1975 film that she made when she was only 25. Her responses have shifted over the course of decades, and at times you can sense her irritation at the continual fascination with her youth; in a 2010 interview, she snapped back to a question about watching Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, long cited as a life-changing experience for Akerman: “Oh, I have said that a hundred times. Forget about it. You know all about that. I have told that story one million times.”

Hailed as a feminist masterpiece when it was first released, Jeanne Dielman nevertheless remains less known than the work of Akerman’s male contemporaries; it’s simultaneously overtheorized and underappreciated. The trouble with writing about Jeanne Dielman, and why such a large body of critical work has accrued around it, is that it is so easy to impute a particular politics to it through a structuralist-feminist lens. The film’s minimalist aesthetics seduce readings of Jeanne’s inner subjectivity. By rendering housework visible and forcing viewers to endure its unforgiving pace, the film performs a critique of patriarchal bourgeois society. When Jeanne washes the dishes, Akerman positions the camera directly behind her as she rinses and dries each plate in real time. By the second plate, our attentions wander. The grid pattern of Jeanne’s pale blue apron dress is repeated in the pastel yellow tiles of her kitchen, and in the towel, too, hanging next to the sink. The lines of the kitchen’s architecture form a literal box around Jeanne. Repressed too long, she rapidly descends into madness after the first small rupture in her routine.