Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman / Belgium-France, 1975):

Habit, "the most imperious of all masters" (Goethe), analyzed six ways from Sunday as a time bomb with a 201-minute-long fuse. Delphine Seyrig’s eponymous Belgian hausfrau, a very cool martinet in blue smocks, is introduced with her back to the camera; not much later, she’s decapitated by the severe frame as she welcomes one of her johns. The noontime Belle de Jour interlude is just one more segment in an iron-clad routine of cleaning, shopping and cooking, a petit bourgeois’ clockwork zigzag remorselessly recorded by Chantal Akerman. The first line, regarding the stew: "I added less water this week, maybe that’s why it’s better." The pot simmering on the stove, the straightening of a bedspread, the unfolding of a couch, these are the housewife’s action set pieces, her owlish son (Jan Decorte) reads Baudelaire at dinner and her friend is a disembodied voice beyond the door ("People say veal has no vitamins. And fish these days can kill you"). Shot at 90° angles, the household is the heroine’s hardened nervous system, offered in scrubbed, planar arrangements that suggest rigid boxes labeled "kitchen," "living room," and "bedroom." The long-take frontality imprints the wallpaper and the tiled walls on your retina, and introduces real time as a co-star. Bressonian lampoons of Julia Child, hard lines in fixed setups, asphyxiating variations of the maid’s morning duties in Umberto D. Heaven is a cup of coffee in an empty restaurant, "making love is merely a detail." Akerman’s masterpiece of absences, where the prisoner polishes the bars of her own cage until a missed hour causes the universe to shift. When Jeanne burns the potatoes and pauses in confusion for a second, it’s a jolt -- the first chink in the armor, the Kubrickian machine starting to go awry. Literally getting up on the wrong side of the bed, she loses her grip, can’t get the coffee right, and faces the utter horror of sitting on a sofa with nothing to do. Orgasm (not a release, but the ultimate loss of control), scissors, lights out. Repulsion, The Pumpkin Eater, That Cold Day in the Park, Images and A Woman Under the Influence are some of her sisters, bloodied in the dark. Cinematography by Babette Mangolte.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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