I first watched Jeanne Dielman in the bath.
Watching films in this way is a favourite, and necessary pastime of mine. Finding the time to indulge my love of long, long baths and films can be a little tricky: both activities take upwards of 90 minutes. There’s only so long in the day.
I’d heard of Chantal Akerman, but that was all. I’d read her name in journals, seen it tweeted by respected film writers. I knew she must be something special, so on this particular evening, I decided watch her most famous work – Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
I didn’t check the run time before I turned it on. (201 minutes, in case you didn’t already know). Its long run time is because much of the film takes place in real time.
I watched Jeanne – the film’s title character – wash the dishes. I watched her peel potatoes, make the bed and eat soup with her son. She opens doors, closes them, turns lights on and off as her routine takes her from room to room.
She’s alone for most of the day.
The camera is unobtrusive, and she never looks towards it. Conversations are spoken through doorways with obscured visitors. She avoids eye contact with her male callers, she sits at right angles to her son at the dinner table, and kisses him goodnight with her body facing at odds to his.
It sounds claustrophobic, but there’s no cliché or aggression in this portrait of domesticity. I read that Jeanne’s movements were lovingly recreated from Chantal Akerman’s observations of her own mother.
Jeanne seems resigned to her lot. Does she enjoy it? Slight flourishes would suggest so. The way her fingers linger on the door as she closes it, a microscopic embellishment in a well rehearsed routine.
I became soothed by the familiarity of her movements.
My bathwater went cold. I topped it up. It went cold again. My boyfriend knocked on the door to check I was okay. My cat came in, sat on the edge of the bath, got bored and left.
I watched Jeanne peel potatoes. I got to know her routine, and her apartment. I was mesmerised.
Half way through the second day, something happens. Perhaps there was an incident between her and her male caller. Something about her seems different. Her hair’s a little ruffled. She seems a little flustered.
Camera angles change.
She leaves the lid off the soup tureen – that’s not something she would do.
She spoils the potatoes, the dishes are re-washed, there’s nowhere to put a hot pot.
She’s unraveling, she snaps.
My boyfriend heard an exclamation from the bathroom.
The credits rolled. I didn’t move.
Three hours and 20 minutes in the bath leaves your hands pretty wrinkly.
The Cube is hosting a rare screening of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at 2pm, followed by a preview of her last work, No Home Movie, on Sunday 31st .