For years I put off watching Chantal Akerman’s 1976 feminist masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles largely down to the fact that its runtime is 3hrs 21m, and on top of that- it’s renowned for being *very* slow cinema, which, admittedly, requires a certain amount of attention I don’t always have after a hard day’s work…
The ‘Greatest Film of All Time’
In 2022, Jeanne Dielman won the title of the greatest film of all time, in the BFI’s yearly Sight and Sound poll, knocking Citizen Kane odd top spot and making it the first female directed film to ever even enter the top 10.
After feeling like a very guilty feminist and even guiltier cinephile, I bit the bullet and went in for the 3 1/2 hour ride.
Admittedly, it was a hard watch. We follow a widowed Belgian mother, Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), over the course of three days in her repetitive and tedious life made up of feminine tasks: cooking, cleaning, running errands and mothering.
Jeanne is also a sex worker. During each of the three afternoons, she welcomes a client into her home- supposedly the easiest (or only) way to make money as a widow who still has a household to maintain and a son to take care of. The encounters with her clients are the only part of the film that we are not privy to.
Halfway through the film, Jeanne’s routine becomes progressively dismantled. In comparison to the first day where every activity is perfectly timely, during the afternoon of the second day, Jeanne emerges from her encounter with a client, her hair dishevelled.
When she puts the money she receives into her tin, she forgets to place the lid back on, then she finds that the potatoes have overcooked, she misses a button on her blouse when getting back into her clothes.
On the third day, her client is late, and where she normally has every hour of the day filled by some sort of task, she is suddenly left alone with her thoughts, and quickly seems overcome with existential dread.
The third day is the only time we get to see a sexual encounter with Jeanne’s client. In an excruciating scene, we see Jeanne in bed below the man, fighting against her own pleasure, but eventually giving in and seemingly achieving orgasm.
As she gets up to put her clothes back on, she takes a pair of scissors from the side and stabs her client. The final ten minutes is Jeanne, in a blood soaked blouse, sat, resigned, calm, waiting for her son to come home from school.
Unseen Female Labour
Described by Le Monde in January 1976 as “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema”, my biggest takeaway from the film was the emphasis placed on female labour and housework.
Whilst watching the film, I won’t deny that there were moments where I was distracted and momentarily lost interest when watching the drawn out shots of Jeanne peeling potatoes, or cleaning shoes, or breading meat.
However, I carried on watching because I had a feeling that this was the sort of film that has true impact after watching. And I was right. If the shots weren’t as long as they were, they wouldn’t have stuck in my mind like photographs long after watching. If the shots weren’t as long as there were, they wouldn’t have truly made themselves significant. Akerman stated about her story:
I do think [Jeanne Dielman] is a feminist film because I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images.
She has also described her work as ‘noise on the silence’. To me, this is a perfect description of Jeanne Dielman. She devotes her story to emphasising the female labour that is usually invisible.
Is this commentary still relevant today, in a world much more progressed when it comes to gender equality?
In my opinion, it very much is. We live in a world where the norm is now for women to make an income like men, however the efforts of childcare and housework are also still largely placed on women. It may be less overt, but the expectation is still on women to at least be the people doing the most when it comes to these jobs.
I noticed this a lot over Christmas. I watched a few TikToks (this one and this one) which sort of made fun of the fact that during the festive season, the women are the people preparing the food, cleaning the house, buying presents, wrapping presents, signing ‘Love, Dad’ on the cards.
I’m not saying that this is the case in every household- of course things have improved greatly, but there’s still an undeniable imbalance. If I look at the couples in my family, the parents of my friends- it is still the women who do these jobs, and they do them on top of a paying job.
I feel as though I’ve never seen the feminine life represented like this on screen before. Only once I saw the film did I realise how much this work goes by unacknowledged within society, art and media.
I don’t believe that the film was supposed to portray Jeanne as a total victim, it simply gave space, almost fondly, for all of the selflessness of female life, something that I believe every woman can relate to.
The film really shows how much time it takes to complete this tasks and how for centuries, women have devoted their lives to these tasks, that are mainly for others- their husbands and children.
To see them acknowledged on screen, made me, and I’m sure many other women, feel recognised and united, and strong in our futility.
Sex Work on Screen
Whilst prostitution might be a metaphor for the ultimate female oppression within the story, Akerman doesn’t demonise Jeanne for her job, or try to make it insinuate anything about her character’s personality and values.
In fact, she creates enough ambiguity with Jeanne to prevent the viewer from categorising her as one thing or another. In a world obsessed with categorisation, particularly with women as either ‘whores’ or ‘madonnas’ Akerman makes Jeanne both of these things, which makes her neither. It’s so refreshing to see no judgement, good or bad, about a sex worker on screen
Jeanne is a sex worker, and this is part of her everyday mundane female labour. It doesn’t seem to be something that she enjoys, because it’s a necessity now that she’s a widow, just like her household tasks.
It feels as though Jeanne knows that because she has no other option but to live the way that she does, she refuses to feel any sort of pleasure, because if she did feel pleasure once, she would realise how oppressed she is in her everyday life. Akerman says in an interview:
Not having pleasure was her last freedom. If Jeanne had found pleasure in having sex with her client she would have been surrendering to the men with whom she was working.
There is speculation that Jeanne experiences orgasm on the encounter with her second client, which is the beginning of the dismantling of her usual structure. Once she experiences it, she possibly can’t resist it again, and so achieves orgasm on the this encounter.
Now that she has realised she can no longer resist her pleasure and remain restrained in her oppressive existence, she takes the scissors and kills the client in an act of rebellion.
In some ways, sex work has come a long way since Jeanne Dielman was made, and I personally, struggle to relate to Jeanne’s character as a sex worker, because I entered the profession more out of choice than lack of.
However, I wonder if sex workers today that are in the profession more out of desperation, can relate to Jeanne’s restriction of her own pleasure as a sex worker.
The oppressed find strength in resistance. In a world where women still turn to sex work as a way to survive, resistance might be how they find their strength. Akerman states:
Fighting against pleasure is Jeanne’s resistance, it is her way of existing.
I know many escorts who do sex work because it’s an easy way to survive as a woman, but not necessarily because they want to. They actively dislike most of their clients, and men in general, because that is how they find strength.
I think that Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, might be a film relevant to sex workers who find themselves in this position. It’s also worth watching for any woman, as it recognises the feminine life, a life largely disregarded by society.