One of the perpetual dilemmas in writing about Chantal Akerman's brilliant early feature Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is how to describe the film accurately without making people think that they'd sooner gnaw one arm off at the shoulder than sit through the thing from start to finish. In bare outline, it can sound like the '70s-feminist equivalent of Warhol's experiments in duration — historically noteworthy but essentially unwatchable stuff like Empire (eight solid hours of the Empire State Building) and Sleep (five somnolent hours of some dude snoozing).
But while Jeanne Dielman, which runs a slightly breezier 3 hours and 21 minutes, definitely traffics in banal repetition, the experience of watching it — for those willing to surrender — can be oddly engrossing, and occasionally even thrilling. In essence, Akerman's film is a suspense movie in which the heroine's attention (or lack thereof) to a multitude of tiny details slowly reveals hairline fissures in her psyche.
What kind of details? The film observes Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), a middle-aged Belgian woman, over the course of about 60 hours as she goes about ... well, to call it her "daily routine" would be hilarious understatement. Military units the world over dream of such regimentation. We watch her prepare meals, make the bed, do the dishes, go shopping — all with a degree of brisk exactitude that implies an overwhelming terror of losing control. Dinner with her son, who's still in school, is eaten mostly in uncomfortable silence. Oh, and each afternoon brings a gentleman caller, with whom Jeanne repairs to the bedroom and from whom she receives a cash payment when they emerge some hours later. Akerman pointedly keeps that door closed until the movie's penultimate scene, when something conventionally dramatic finally happens, but you can sense the mechanical thrust of her hips in every plate she scrubs and potato she peels.
Back in 1975, when Jeanne Dielman was made, its (literal) climax was the subject of most discourse on the film, whose champions tended to extol its radical feminism. I'm not about to give away the movie's sole plot twist — you can probably guess anyway — but for me this abrupt resolution is both its most problematic aspect and the least interesting thing about it. As in a Hitchcock picture, the explosion itself is of no real consequence; what keeps you engaged and alert is the sight of the timer on the bomb counting down and down and down toward zero. What matters in Jeanne Dielman isn't the reductive destination but the incrementally nerve-wracking journey, in which a dropped spoon or a lid not replaced immediately on a jar portends emotional catastrophe. Seyrig, perhaps best known as the female lead in Last Year at Marienbad, makes Jeanne magnificently opaque, reining in emotion and allowing pure action to speak volumes.
Okay, fine, you say, but will or won't I be bored out of my skull en route? It's a fair question, and I know people who profess to love the film while also admitting that it requires making peace with a certain amount of mild tedium. Me, I find even the first hour's establishment of Jeanne's error-free routine strangely hypnotic, largely because of Akerman's geometric compositions and metronomic rhythm. Jeanne is constantly moving from room to room in her small apartment (see title for address), obsessively switching the lights on and off as she goes, and that recurring CLICK/cut CLICK/cut CLICK/cut becomes the visual equivalent of a terrific techno beat, intoxicating for its own sake. Story and character become irrelevant. You watch Jeanne the way that you watch raindrops inching their way along to the spot where the windshield wipers will slice them in half.
(Note: Kelly Oliver, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, and professor of women's studies at Vanderbilt University, will host a discussion at the 7:30 p.m. screening Friday, Feb. 5.)