Comments on Jeanne Dielman

Friday night’s screening of Jeanne Dielman did not disappoint. As a film about psychological breakdown, I find it more subtle and more strikingly conceived than Polanski’s Repulsion, which relies a bit too heavily on obvious visual effects, brilliant as it otherwise is.

I could only admire Jeanne Dielmlan‘s rigorous–but not rigid–construction. The first section very economically tells us about Jeanne Dielman’s daily routine; later we see different portions of the same routines, or variations in her actions. So in its own way, the film is not repetitive though it seems so on the surface. The camera setups and lighting are also remarkable; the entire film is an elaborate play between things shown onscreen and hidden offscreen, light versus dark, focus vs. out-of-focus, indoors versus outdoors, and so on. The film’s visual design becomes so intense that a simple change in angle, or even a sudden cut to a medium shot registers as a physical shock. It’s also very funny, thanks especially to Delphine Seyrig’s brilliant timing and physical grace. I for one will not soon forget the utterly bizarre nighttime dialogues between her and her son.

One bit I found particularly moving was when Jeanne Dielman’s neighbor comes to pick up her baby after Jeanne has been watching it for the afternoon. She talks at length about herself and her frustrations raising her children, while Jeanne listens without interest and with visible impatience. This is echoed later in the film when Jeanne goes looking for a button and tells the shop owner all about the aunt who sent her the jacket from Canada. It really brings home the fact that all these women lack opportunities for meaningful conversations, whether with their immediate family or with other women like them.

Even if you see the film on DVD, I recommend going to see it in the theater if you get the chance. It’s bound to lose a great deal of its hyperintensity on the small screen. But more importantly, watching it with a crowd is great fun. Even after we were all warned that the film is about a housewife’s routines and that it’s 200 minutes long, a number of people stood up and stumbled out as late as two hours into the film. I’d like to know why, if you’ve watched this film for more than two hours and you’ve figured out right away that “nothing” is happening, would you not stay to the very end? Why cheat yourself out of the payoff?

Jeanne Dielman is such a rich film that one could write an entire book about it. I’m surprised no one has done it yet.


About James Steffen

I'm currently the Film Studies and Media Librarian at Emory University in Atlanta. Although my primary passion and expertise is in film, I also love literature, music and other arts.
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