The word “realism” has come to describe movies that keep to an expected set of stylistic markers: a focus on average, middle-to-lower-class people; an unfussy naturalism; a concern with the struggles of day-to-day life. But most movies that bear the label remain slaves to old-fashioned narrative tropes, as connected to reality as truth is to “truthiness.” Chantal Akerman’s radical 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles turns the term “realism” on its face, exploring the contours of a woman’s life through the mundane routines that never make it into movies. At 201 minutes, it’s a tremendously challenging affront to convention: In a typical sequence, Jeanne discovers she only has one potato, she goes to the store to buy a bag of potatoes, and she peels the potatoes one by one. Yet the miracle of the film is that her daily tasks, which she executes with admirable fastidiousness, hint at deep psychological stress. It’s like watching her unravel in slow motion.
Here’s what we know about Jeanne Dielman, played with brittle discipline by Delphine Seyrig (Last Year At Marienbad): She’s a middle-aged widow, living in a small apartment with her adolescent son (Jan Decorte), whose interactions with her are spare and brusque in the extreme. During the day—the film covers three of them—Jeanne busies herself with a domestic routine that includes folding laundry, making the bed, preparing dinner, watching the neighbor’s infant, and turning tricks for the occasional male caller. That last chore raises a red flag, of course, but Akerman integrates it into Jeanne’s day as if it were just another task; Jeanne welcomes a client, takes his coat and hat, and closes the bedroom door behind them. The only evidence of sex is her straightening up the bed afterward.
The strategy makes viewers feel the oppressive limits of Jeanne’s world and how her routines box her into an existential prison. There are indications that she’s deeply unhappy—a concerned letter from a sister in Canada, her obviously chilly relationship with her son, the mechanical joylessness with which she goes about her daily business—but Akerman presents none of these clues in a conventional way. For a film that luxuriates in dull repetition, Jeanne Dielman is strangely hypnotic, perhaps because it taps into the voyeuristic sensation of seeing how a person really lives. And when Akerman finally chooses to break the spell, she arrives at an ending that’s simultaneously well-earned and as shocking as movies get.
Key features: A fine host of features on the second “supplemental” disc, especially a 69-minute documentary that consists entirely of Akerman on the Jeanne Dielman set, communicating her vision to Seyrig and the crew. Akerman also appears for a new interview and introduces her first film, 1968’s short “Saute Ma Ville,” which is also included.