There’s something I find ludicrous about the way we change our states of being into ones that are happier and pleasanter for the photographs taken of us. I’ve often wondered as to why we find it so difficult to not look presentable in pictures, thereby creating a character on-the-spot that often times fails to become a true representation of ourselves. In my head, I sometimes picture the boy in that photo he took with his parents who are no more, several years later, all broken down, lonely, and helpless, looking at the image and feeling no comfort, because in it are three fake people with fake expressions on their faces. There’s no shoulder for him to cry on, and no authenticity to take him back. Isn’t faking your emotions in a snapshot just as evil as falsely retelling history? In fact, isn’t that exactly what it is?
Chantal Akerman was around 25 years old when she decided to make a movie with an all-female crew and a protagonist whose mannerisms were inspired by her mother. With a minuscule government grant to support her endeavor, she created in 1975 a film later christened with the mouthful title Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. I saw it for the first time semi-late last year, after reading about Akerman and the troubled second-half of her life that ultimately ended in suicide. What I got was a movie very similar to what that photograph mentioned earlier was not. It portrayed bitter reality, with no giving in or compensating, with time flowing as it should, and with events happening as they are expected to. Despite this, it was like nothing I had ever seen before it, and in case you hadn’t guessed already, it kind of surprised me.
There was a short period of silence in my home, I remember, after the last shot came to a close and the credits started rolling. It was well past midnight, and I was wrapped in thought. Though it’s impossible for me to recall what was going on in my head at the time, I can say for sure that I felt as though life was a lot more than what I had thought of it previously. It was interesting to me to realize that cinema had this power to create a sort of dent in my then-existent ideology. The days after my initial viewing of the film, I began to notice strange things occurring within my actions. For example, I distinctly remember getting ready for my final year of high school the following morning and polishing my shoes in the exact same manner as Jeanne Dielman had done in the movie. It sounds like a pretty pointless thing to write about on here, but at the time, I took that action as seriously as the film’s title character did. In short, this picture latched onto me for several weeks after I had been witness to its execution, and in all honesty, I was starting to enjoy it a bit.
The film got me thinking about how boring we are as people. I’m boring, you’re boring, even the comedians who have entertained you and made you laugh till it hurt are boring. It’s only a handful of moments in every day of our lives when we do something exciting or different. Before writing this article, for instance, I did a couple of things that I am able to recall right now. I rode around on my bike, saw a couple short films, and ate shawarma for dinner. Everything else that happened to me are events I don’t consider important enough to store in my brain, and that is simply because they’re routine in nature. They happen everyday. I think it’s a core characteristic in all human beings to cherish the extraordinary, and that’s only natural. Such is the case with many of our movies as well. They portray events that don’t necessarily frequent the lives of the general public, and this is able to cause some intrigue in the minds of the audience. Maybe that’s why Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels stuck out to me, because it is a celebration of an uninteresting life. The film doesn’t exactly have a coherent and structured plot, and it is considered by many to be a “slow” cinematic experience. The only reason I even decided to watch the film was due to the fact that it got a Criterion Collection release. I’m glad I did though, because I was able to have one of the most fascinating episodes of my entire life the night I saw it. Funny that it was all about someone else, then.
Jeanne Dielman is a film about the monotony of existence. And what better example is there to portray such a life than a mother who manages the work at home? Our protagonist is a middle-aged housewife with a past that she tries to forget. We’re never given any information about her being outside of the three days that are depicted in the movie. Her husband passed on a couple of years back, and she’s trying her best to make it through all by herself. With a son to care for and chores to do, she performs sex work for gentlemen who arrive at her place during the evening in order to raise money, and that’s about as exciting as it gets for her. Her days are meticulously woven and tightly packed with things to do that she never sees a dull moment. The points of interest in her everyday tasks as far as she is concerned are making sure that the plates are all clean, the food is cooked just right, and everything is timed to the second.