There are two problems I have with the film. The first is one I have with many French films (Akerman is Belgian, so let’s say francophone films) of that era: the emotional content of the climax is too melodramatic. The finale somehow negates the sensitivity to the human condition which seems to be the great strength which Akerman has inherited from Godard, Truffaut and the Nouvelle Vague in general. In Jeanne Dielman, an everyday gesture, just enough out of the ordinary to be a complete surprise, would have sufficed to bring it to a breathtaking close.
The other problem I have with it is more interesting. After seeing the film, I watched an interview with Akerman, an intelligent, down-to-earth, modest woman, currently teaching at CCNY. Speaking of Jeanne Dielman, she mentions an important element of the plot – if such a thin series of events that make up the film could be called a plot – which I had missed entirely. I went back and watched the section of the film where the event mentioned by Akerman occurs. It was not there. It certainly was not explicit, and if it was implicit it was so subtle that I see no way an ordinary viewer could catch it. A woman viewer, perhaps, might. But she would have to be very engaged, and even then she would only be making an educated guess that happened to be correct.
Here’s an analogy: You are sitting at the edge of a pond, watching as the water lapping the shore propels a small rectangle of tree bark forward and back. The rhythmic lapping of the water, the dancing motion of the piece of bark, engross you. Then you notice that the lapping has become irregular, the ripples driving toward you have become a bit stronger, the sound as they meet the shore a bit sharper. Little by little, the piece of bark is driven toward the shore until it is snagged among some weeds.
Something happened, something changed. You may wonder what that was, but not knowing does not interfere with your pleasure in the quiet drama of the lapping water and the piece of bark.
A companion sitting beside you, someone more familiar with the pond, may know that there are bass in it which occasionally rise to the surface to snap at insects, causing small disruptions in the water. As engrossed as you were with the lapping water and the piece of bark, your companion did not see a fish break the surface of the pond, but she thinks that this is what probably occurred. Has this belief, this theory, based on special knowledge, enhanced her experience?
The answer to that question may rest on whether your companion is an engaged nature lover, a sort of environmentalist. If she is, then knowing about the bass and their habits, knowing what kind of insects may have been floating on the surface, pondering the cycle of life and death and the interconnection of it all, right down to the fate of the piece of bark, may well have enriched her experience. If your companion’s interest in the lapping water is more abstract, if she, like you, is simply engrossed in the visual and aural sensations at the pond’s edge, then knowing about the bass and guessing that one may have broken the surface of the water to snap up an insect, would not heighten her experience.
Applying that rather complex analogy to the experience of watching Jeanne Dielman: if someone – most likely it would be a woman – were to intuit what the event was that Akerman refers to in the interview yet does not explicitly show in the film, would it enhance her appreciation of the film? I think that would depend on whether or not she was a feminist, whether she has been watching the film simply as a work of cinema or whether she is attuned to the sexual politics in it. For Jeanne Dielman is a feminist film. It was not intended to be a feminist film, any more than Middlemarch was intended to be a feminist novel – but that, of course, only makes its feminist message stronger and more convincing.
I hope I have not discouraged anyone from watching Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It should not be missed by anyone who loves great movies.