Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Masterpiece of Control

Chantal Akerman's 200-minute epic of the mundane flies by like a thriller.
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Who’s in the mood for meatloaf with a side of existential dread?

OK, I’m only so glib because writing about Chantal Akerman’s landmark Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a daunting proposition.

This 200-minute masterpiece, which largely takes place within the confines of a middle-aged widow’s modest Brussels apartment, isn’t merely a slow-cinema progenitor, and it’s certainly not anything resembling an endurance test. Any film that runs past three hours, particularly one so resistant to narrative norms, is bound to be called “challenging,” but that label just doesn’t apply here.

Jeanne Dielman unfolds like a thriller in slow-motion (or perhaps, real time), with every seemingly minute action taking on incredible significance. Can a poorly rinsed dish, an overcooked potato and a stubborn ribbon be the stuff of riveting cinema? You bet.

Akerman’s precise sense of composition and editing work in concert with the remarkably opaque performance of Delphine Seyrig to craft an uncomfortably revealing portrait of Jeanne, a woman who spends her days at home tidying up, cooking dinner and watching the neighbor’s baby, with the occasional errand out to the post office or store.

And, she works as a prostitute, with regular visits from different men on different days of the week, each of the encounters on the three days the film depicts shot with increasing voyeuristic detail.

Of course, the film is famous for its much more detailed depictions of everyday tasks — including cinema’s most renowned meatloaf — which Akerman shoots almost exclusively in static medium shots. Who needs to move the camera when you can compose this stunningly? Every frame of this film keeps your eyes darting across the screen, absorbing every detail of the rooms that make up the entirety of Jeanne’s life. One of the film’s delights is the way Akerman will interrupt a series of ostensibly staid cuts with one that radically reorients the space; there’s probably no film that uses the spatial confines of a location as well as this.

In discussions of Jeanne Dielman, Seyrig tends not to get enough attention, but I was struck in this viewing how crucial her placid, almost immutable facial expression is to this portrait of suffocating constancy. We’re forced to rely on the small inconsistencies in her gestures, always captured by Akerman’s watchful eye, to get any sense of her inner life. Akerman’s filmmaking is rigorous, but Seyrig’s performance is no less so.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Jeanne Dielman checks off one of their most necessary upgrades, and this 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer easily outclasses the fairly muddy, indistinct look of the DVD, released in 2009. There’s a bit of inherent softness to the image here, but levels of fine detail are very pleasing, with stable, consistent color levels. Film grain is rendered beautifully, and damage is very minor, limited to some light, rarely seen speckles and a few hairs in the gate. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is exceptionally clean — and you would notice if it wasn’t, given how sparse the dialogue and effects are.

Extras are identical to the DVD’s release, though they’re all on one Blu-ray disc here. It’s an impressive collection, offering an on-set making-of, excerpts from a 1997 episode of French filmmaking TV show Cinéma de notre temps, a brief archival chat between Akerman and Seyrig, and two newly produced (for the DVD) interviews, with Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte. Also included: a chat with Akerman’s mother, Natalia, and Akerman’s first film, 13-minute short Saute ma ville (1968), presented here in 1080p. An insert with an essay by scholar Ivone Margulies rounds out the supplements. 

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