Sydney Film Festival: Jeanne Dielman

Scott Wallace
19th Jun 2016

Before the launch of this year's Sydney Film Festival program, I had partially given up hope that I would ever see Chantal Akerman's influential 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, especially on the big screen. It's a long, difficult film, virtually impossible to find in Australia without importing an expensive DVD or breaking a few laws. But finally seeing it was an invaluable experience that can never be taken away. 

Jeanne Dielman... is three-and-a-half hours long and entirely without any discernible plot. The iconic Delphine Seyrig plays the character whose name and address make up the film's title. Living in her small Brussels apartment with her teenaged son Sylvain, she is fastidiously neat and adheres to a strict routine, especially with regard to the men who come into her bedroom each afternoon and pay her for her services. The film slowly evolves over three days in Jeanne's life before coming to a sudden and shocking conclusion.

The film is a radical, feminist piece. Its intentionally tedious and glacially slow pace is punctuated with surreal black humour as Jeanne goes about her daily routine that barely differs from day to day - cooking, cleaning, knitting a sweater for Sylvain. The film becomes hypnotic, and the audience themselves sink into Jeanne's routine, anticipating what she will do next, so when a small disruption occurs - at first, a pot of overcooked potatoes - it creates a ripple through every viewer.

In the crowded cinema, it was fascinating to feel people's reactions to certain scenes - the most defiantly un-cinematic - that confront the audience with the emptiness of Jeanne's life. It's a film that feels almost hostile in its simplicity, hitting on a gut level. Reacting to the film in real time is part of the experience of this unique and stunning film.

Every single movement, object, word spoken, is a signifier of the struggle of Jeanne, the archetypal housewife. The way she is framed by a camera that hovers at waist-height for almost the entire film is claustrophobic. At times her body is cropped and bifurcated and transformed into orphaned synecdoche representing her existential flattening by the men who use her and the son who treats her with either indifference or Oedipal desire. 

The film creates a story through small disruptions of Jeanne's life, and as a result it's a total disruption of what cinema is and how we engage in it. It's one of the most uncompromising films ever made, and it's also one of the all-time greatest works of cinema. It rewards focus and adaptability by shredding your nerves as much as Jeanne's - arguably no film creates a stronger link with its central character.

As long as we have institutions and events like the Sydney Film Festival, we will have access to important works like Jeanne Dielman.... It's not just a movie - it hardly counts as "entertainment" - but it's an experience that will never be forgotten.