The Sexism of Everyday Life

Jeanne Dielman, Directed by Chantal Akerman

When Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade poll about the greatest films of all time was published two weeks ago, people were shocked to see Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at the top.

Performing gender: Jeanne Dielman.

Responses ranged from delight to outrage.

The only thing everyone seemed to agree about was that this 1975 film’s “glow up” represented a major turning point in film history. 

Instead of discussing the relative merits of warhorses by endlessly celebrated white, male directors, movie lovers were pondering a picture that many of them had not even seen. 

Once more of them had familiarised themselves with Jeanne Dielman, the debate shifted. 

Predictably, sexists reiterated the same stale arguments about greatness that used to shape discussions of painting during the heyday of the Paris Salon. 

Akerman’s film was too limited in scope, too domestic – the cinematic equivalent of a still life – to justify being compared with the top films off Sight and Sound polls from previous decades. 

Even critics who were pleased that a female director was being exalted in this way questioned whether Jeanne Dielman was the right vehicle for this mode of identity politics. 

Surely there were films better suited to demonstrate that women, when given a chance, could produce something capable of equaling the very best work of men?

Part of the problem with Jeanne Dielman, in particular, is that it’s a three-hour film filled with long stretches in which nothing of consequence seems to be happening.

We see the film’s eponymous protagonist — Delphine Seyrig, in an astonishingly nuanced performance — doing housework, eating dinner with her son, and running errands around town. 

With one crucial exception, it feels as though Akerman had decided to make a documentary about what it was like to be a middle-aged widow in Brussels during the early 1970s.

It’s telling that complaints about Jeanne Dielman’s placing at the top of the Sight and Sound poll often boiled down to statements like “I don’t want to watch someone peeling potatoes.”

For one thing, that kind of criticism indicates either that the viewer didn’t even try to watch the entire film or fell asleep before its conclusion. 

Even within the five-minute stretch in which potato peeling takes place, such a statement would completely miss the point.

In failing to acknowledge what makes this scene powerful – or similar ones, such as when Jeanne makes coffee without drinking it or sits motionless for several minutes in her living room — the film’s detractors do a better job of demonstrating its greatness – how it turns the very idea of scale on its head – than some of its most ardent supporters.

Why is the eponymous protagonist peeling potatoes? Because she left the first pot of them that she cooked on the stove too long. 

Why did she leave them on the stove too long? Because she was turning a trick in her bedroom.

The film begins with another sequence of Jeanne doing sex work. We see her preparing dinner. We see her opening the door to her client and then ushering him out afterwards. We see her putting her payment inside the soup tureen on her dining-room table. 

And then, we see Jeanne going through the ritual of trying to wash the experience away during real-time footage of her taking a bath and tidying her bedroom.

Throughout the sequence, Jeanne maintains absolute composure. Even if she is dissociating, our impression is that she has figured out a way to incorporate this extremely unpleasant work into her daily routine. 

When her teenage son returns from school, her manner warms up a bit. Because he’s a good boy and doesn’t complain, as Jeanne explains to her neighbour later in the film, her sacrifice seems worth it.

The sequence that leads to the potato peeling scene plays out differently. Although we have no clear evidence that her second client is worse than the first, the way Jeanne reacts after he leaves suggests that something has disrupted her hard-won equilibrium.

Part of the problem might be that the session runs long. By the time the man leaves, the light in the apartment has dimmed significantly. Or maybe she had to schedule his appointment later than she would have liked, throwing off her regular routine.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that Jeanne is distressed even before he exits her apartment.

As she follows her client down the hall from her bedroom, her eyes are downcast, and her backlit hair is messed up to a degree that the film has already taught us to perceive as acutely uncomfortable for her.

After Jeanne goes into the kitchen and realises that the first batch of potatoes has been overcooked, she goes into an uncharacteristic panic, carrying the pot from room to room before she eventually returns to the kitchen and dumps its contents into the trash. 

Opening the door to the alcove where she keeps her potatoes, Jeanne discovers that she only has one left, necessitating an emergency trip to the store to buy more.

When we see her peeling those potatoes, then, we should be able to perceive what they represent for her: an example, in microcosm, of just how fragile her façade of bourgeois respectability is. 

Indeed, this mundane activity seems to have brought Jeanne to the point of tears.

A few minutes later, her son arrives home from school and is surprised to find her still sitting there at the kitchen table. He notices that his mother’s hair is still dishevelled – at least by her standards – and asks her about it, which surely cuts her to the bone. 

But Jeanne soldiers on, proceeding with the rest of their nightly routine — despite the fact that dinner is delayed — as if nothing had happened.

But something did happen, something neither her mind nor body can forget. And that outwardly tedious scene of her peeling potatoes in real-time communicates it with visceral intensity, despite her best effort to pretend otherwise.

Unless, of course, the viewer is mirroring Jeanne’s own attempt at suppressing the dark truth of her existence. 

In all likelihood, either members of the audience have experienced a predicament like Jeanne’s, or they have been complicit in perpetuating one, whether to satisfy their personal desires or because they can’t muster the resolve to challenge a system in which women – and sometimes men – feel compelled to degrade themselves for money.

Unless the history of cinema acknowledges this degradation, which was and remains foundational within the industry, it is a lie.

How can a small film like Jeanne Dielman be greater than all the celebrated masterpieces it beat out for the top spot in the Sight and Sound poll? 

By demonstrating, with excruciating patience, that what happens in the seemingly insignificant activities of everyday existence is just as important as the exciting deviations from routine that typically shape cinematic storytelling. 

And by showing how the smallest problems – replacing a missing button, trying to dissolve a sugar cube in tepid coffee – are inevitably bound up with the biggest traumas of all.

Screenshot courtesy of the Criterion Collection. All rights reserved.