Updated: Jun 20
When the biopic of Phyllis Schlafley, "Mrs. America", debuted on Hulu last year, a few savvy viewers noticed similarities between the final scene of the miniseries and Chantal Akerman's masterpiece (or, because of its central character, "feminist masterpiece") "Jeanne Dielman" or, to give the film its full title, "Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles".
In this scene, surely un hommage à Akerman by the episode's writers (Dahvi Waller and Joshua Allen Griffith) and directors (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck), Schlafley, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett, has just been informed by Reagan himself (we hear his voice on the telephone and see her reaction) that she will not be offered a cabinet position in his administration (it is January 1981). Although Schlafley's list of Republican contacts, derived from her grassroots movement to prevent the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by the 38 States required, was influential in getting Reagan elected president in 1980, she was considered too polarizing a figure at a time when American politics was not as polarized as it is today. When her husband (John Slattery) tells her that she has been robbed and then nonchalantly asks her what time is dinner, despite the unsympathetic nature of this woman, the way in which the scene unfolds leads us to feel a certain compassion towards her. The answer; "It's six o'clock, it's always at six.". Blanchett then slowly hangs up the phone and returns, defeated, to the kitchen. The camera frames her in a medium shot and in a single take that will last about one minute, she sits at the table, facing us and then, robotically, begins to peel one apple, then another, then another. And there she is, before our eyes, Jeanne Dielman!
Released in Europe in 1975 and then in the USA in 1983, Chantal Akerman's film follows, for three days, the iterative daily life of a widowed woman and single mother. The duration of 3 hours and 21 minutes, requires a major commitment on the part of the viewer but, like many of the great classic movies, it rewards us with a multitude of pleasures.
The everyday details of this loving and caring mother contrast with her life as a prostitute who welcomes clients into her home with the same detached and mechanical demeanor we see in her other daily activities.
There is no back story, and we never know how or why Jeanne arrived at this point in her life. No one speaks her name in the film, we only get a glimpse of it in a letter she reads to her son. Apart from a few brief scenes where she goes shopping and stops for a solitary cup of coffee, the film is a closed-door affair that takes place in Jeanne's apartment, mainly her kitchen. In a series of long takes, the camera captures Jeanne in medium shot. We see her making coffee, washing dishes, making the bed, taking out the garbage and bathing after sex. As the viewer settles into the film, Jeanne's routines and extreme obsessive behavior (she always turns off a light before leaving a room) begin to fascinate us. We enter her world of meticulous routines. The rituals take on a repetitive beauty. It is all the more fascinating through the acting of Delphine Seyrig ("Last Year at Marienbad"), an actress of style and great beauty.
Then, by the second day, you begin to notice subtle changes in Jane's rituals. Trivial things at first, like dropping a newly washed spoon, and then, as time goes on, you realize that Jeanne is slowly losing her mind before your eyes. A sense of unease settles over us, a hunch that something terrible is going to happen. It will.
Akerman, who committed suicide in 2015, was born in Brussels, Belgium, to Holocaust survivors. Her mother survived, unlike her grandparents, in Auschwitz. They would be exceptionally close throughout their lives. The daily details of Jeanne's life were influenced by the daily routines of her mother and her beloved aunt. The Jewish religious rituals of her childhood also had a huge influence. That said, Akerman hated labels, whether they were "feminist," "Jewish," or "lesbian." Although "Jeanne Dielman" predates Ruby Rich's coining of the term "New Queer Cinema" in "Sight & Sound" in 1992, Akerman was considered by many to be a key representative of that movement. That her greatest film should be referenced in this way, so beautifully and lovingly, to conclude a series about a woman who considered herself an antifeminist, is ironic. It should be antithetical, and yet it is not.
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