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Jeanne Dielman: Chantal Akerman's Domestic Mystique

Seyrig strikes a pose

Chantal Akerman’s first masterpiece came early in her career. In the Brussels-born filmmaker’s second feature-length production, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a steely Delphine Seyrig plays a middle-aged widow who, over the course of nearly three and a half hours of screen time, does her shopping, tidies the kitchen, takes out the trash and, oh yes, periodically entertains “clients” in her bedroom while her teenage son is away at school. Slowly, other cracks begin to show in Jeanne’s prim and proper façade — she lets some potatoes boil for too long; the lid is carelessly left off a candy dish — all en route to a climax that is as shocking as it is entirely logical. Like many Akerman films, Jeanne Dielman — screening for two nights at LACMA in a new 35mm print — is an account of domestic habitats and the people and objects that move through them. (In a famous review in Film Comment, fittingly titled “Kitchen Without Kitsch,” Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson called it “a still-life film,” though I guarantee you’ve never seen a fruit bowl quite like this one.) It is also about repetition and routine as a justification for existence, and how such things might drive someone mad without anyone realizing it, least of all the person herself. That it was all told from a woman’s point of view, at a historical moment that was not particularly robust for women either as subjects or makers of films, sealed the movie’s status as a classic — albeit one that has been nearly impossible to see for the past three decades. “There was a lot about Jeanne Dielman that I didn’t understand when I wrote it,” Akerman told me in a 2004 interview. “I had a script that was quite precise, but I didn’t even know before I started the first few shots that it was going to be a long movie. After two or three days, I said to the actress, ‘You know, it’s going to be a very long movie.’ But it was not planned.” 

Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; Fri.-Sat., April 10-11, 7:30 p.m., www.lacma.org.


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