In Mrs. America’s eighth episode, “Houston,” diehard antifeminist activist Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson) gets lost at the 1977 National Women’s Conference, and as she wanders around trying to reconnect with her cohort, she finds herself brushing up against people she’s only feared from afar. There are women proudly wearing T-shirts that read “I had an abortion,” women taking self-defense workshops, women primal-screaming their frustration until their throats are raw. What she doesn’t see are women like her—at least, until she stumbles into a screening of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman. Alice, her head swimming from fruity cocktails and a bummed Xanax, is just trying to grab a brownie off the side table, but she’s inadvertently stumbled into (and, briefly, in front of) the climax of one of the most important movies in the history of feminist cinema—a movie that both honors and examines the lives of women like Alice Macray.
Jeanne Dielman, whose complete title adds the street address 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, insists on both its heroine’s particularity and her ordinariness. Akerman, then 24, based the character, a single mother caring for her son, on her childhood memories of her mother and aunt, particularly the endless hours spent watching them prepare meals and carry out household tasks. Akerman cast arthouse icon Delphine Seyrig in the lead role, but Akerman drilled Seyrig in the process of shining shoes and boiling potatoes until every bit of Seyrig’s aristocratic upbringing had been extinguished. The fact that Jeanne also uses her bedroom to turn tricks while her son is at school would be the center of a more sensationalistic movie, but Akerman treats it as just one more chore to be carried out, albeit one the camera normally chooses not to follow.
At well over three hours, Jeanne Dielman, which is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and available for rent on services like Prime Video, doesn’t just tell you that housework is work; it shows you, minute by excruciating minute. Watching Seyrig cook and clean in real time might strike you as a formalist gimmick, but if you watch attentively—and this is a movie, perhaps more than any other, that demands quiet and sustained viewing—the mundanity takes on a hint of the sacred. Day after day (there are three in all) you watch Jeanne carry out the same tasks in the same way, as if performing her own private choreography. (Akerman not only coached Seyrig on how to carry herself, emulating the memory of her aunt’s movements, but how many seconds to remain offscreen.) And so, on the third day, when those steps, memorized by her body over thousands of repetitions, start to go awry, you notice each minor deviation, and it fills you with the sense that something is horribly, inexplicably wrong.
At the moment Alice walks in on Jeanne Dielman, that sense of pervasive unease blossoms into a fateful act: after servicing a john (and, perhaps for the first time, having an orgasm of her own), Jeanne grabs a pair of sewing scissors and stabs her client in the throat. It’s a shocking act—the first time I saw the film, a pair of older women sitting near me actually screamed—but it’s also a dispassionate one, and after it’s over, Jeanne returns to her dining room table, sitting in the dark as the lights of passing cars reflect onto her face. Has she ruined her life or finally broken free of it? The unwillingness to answer such questions is one reason Akerman balked at being categorized as a feminist filmmaker. But in the context of Mrs. America, the conclusion is less ambiguous. Her night among the “libbers” has changed Alice irrevocably. The spell once cast by her friend and idol, Phyllis Schlafly, has been broken, and without it, she can’t be a part of a political movement in which orders are passed down from the top and not meant to be questioned, even if it’s a woman doing the ordering. In the show’s final episode, Alice drives away from Phyllis with a smile just beginning to spread across her face. She hasn’t joined the libbers. All she’s done is take a part-time job, making money she can spend without asking her husband’s permission first. But it’s a step, and whether it’s the last or the first of many will be hers to decide.
As for Phyllis Schlafly, she’s stuck in an earlier part of the movie. Having laid the groundwork for the modern conservative movement and the election of Ronald Reagan, she’s considered and then passed over for a position in his administration, because while the anti-ERA movement has triumphed, it’s too toxic for a national figure like Reagan to embrace. “The battle follows us home,” Reagan says over the phone, and suddenly, home is all Phyllis has left. Her husband moves on to the subject of when she’s fixing dinner, and she responds as the camera frames her through the bars of the kitchen window, “It’s always at six.” The last shot of the series (before the coda, consisting of historical footage) is Phyllis sitting at her kitchen table, peeling an apple in real time and then reaching for the next—a truncated taste of Jeanne Dielman, but an unmistakable allusion all the same (and one that showrunner Dahvi Waller acknowledged to Slate).
There’s something a little punitive about the way Mrs. America returns Phyllis Schlafly to the domestic sphere, especially since she would continue to be a prominent figure. She spent the years after Reagan’s election giving commentary on CNN. But in a sense, it’s what she deserves. In an attempt to colonize her opponents’ rhetoric, Schlafly liked to argue that what she wanted for women was “complete freedom of choice,” including the right to choose to be a full-time wife and mother. To the series’ libbers, the very act of building a political movement makes Schlafly and her followers into hypocrites—“Congratulations, you’re working girls,” Margo Martindale’s Bella Abzug crows to a group of professional anti-ERA activists. But it’s one thing to choose domestic life, and another to fall back on it because you’ve failed to escape. Phyllis has fought for women’s right to be happy housewives, but she’s no longer capable of being one herself, and she doesn’t even have Chantal Akerman to help her understand why.
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