Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles” is a 3 1/2 -hour movie in which nothing happens. But the nothing that happens is what occupies the vast majority of our waking hours.
Set almost entirely in the titular one-bedroom apartment, the movie shadows the quotidian movements of a widowed single mother (Delphine Seyrig) over the course of three days. She boils potatoes, shines shoes, knits a sweater for her uncommunicative teenage son (Jan Decorte), all with a practiced, intuitive rhythm.
She also, each afternoon, turns a single trick in her cramped bedroom, an assignation that lasts just long enough for the hall lights to click off.
Shot by cinematographer Babette Mangolte as a series of static, rectilinear tableaux, Jeanne’s routines elapse in what feels like real time, but repeat viewings reveal the care with which Akerman modulates the film’s tempo, both within shots and between them.
The fascinating on-set documentary included with the new “Jeanne Dielman” double-disc DVD released by Criterion this week shows Akerman, then 25 and looking younger, walking her veteran actress through each step of procedures that seem utterly unstudied on screen. The very mundanity of her tasks lends them a kind of purity: It’s domestic ritual as abstract art.
The movie’s elegantly framed longueurs have the effect of resetting the audience’s clock, melding our internal cadence with the underlying pulse of Jeanne’s housework, so that even the slightest deviation comes as a physical shock. When she drops a shoe brush or leaves a pot of potatoes to boil too long, it’s as if a rift has opened in the fabric of the universe.
Although we’ve only seen her perform the same actions once or twice, Seyrig’s gestures have the ingrained absoluteness of chores executed hundreds, even thousands, of times. The gradually accumulating alterations are subtly but unshakably terrifying.
Since the movie’s style is observational and its minimal dialogue is often merely functional, the viewer is left to seek out the signposts toward the film’s abrupt conclusion, itself as much a product of narrative exigency as any development of character. After servicing her second client, Jeanne emerges from behind her bedroom door with her careful coif mussed and her walk slightly unsteady.
Although Akerman has her own explanation, what has happened behind that door remains as much a mystery as the destination of Jeanne’s nightly leisure walks, the sole time she escapes the camera’s all-seeing gaze.
While the film’s focus on the grueling labor of keeping house aligns it with the political currents of the 1970s, Akerman’s concerns are more structuralist than feminist. Its true subject is the passage of time, and the way the repetitions of familiar acts become so comforting that any chance, even positive, becomes a threat. The greatest danger Jeanne faces is an unexpected jolt of pleasure.
“Jeanne Dielman” belongs to the rare class of films capable of transforming the world around you, though it requires the kind of patience and dedication that can be hard to come by at home. (In other words, turn off your phone, then watch.)
The reward is a new sense of connection to actions that normally pass without thought, a sense that every flip of a light switch is an experience to be savored for its pure physical sensation, a step in a dance that never ends.