Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

If I told you I'd just watched a 3-1/2-hour movie about a woman who performs the same routine for three days, would you have any desire to watch it? Probably not, and I would imagine that even film classes would rarely screen the film for fear of dealing with antsy students. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is not likely to be a film to leap to one's lips when suggesting French films to neophytes for fear of losing a friend forever. Yet it deserves the strong reputation it's built around itself over the years as one of the great feminist works of the cinema, an unflinching look at loneliness and disconnect, especially in women only just becoming free enough to assert themselves.

Director Chantal Akerman, armed with a mostly female crew, clearly draws from the structuralist cinema developed a decade previously by such luminaries as Michael Snow. In fact, her film, about a widowed woman caring for her young adult son and herself through prostitution, recalls Jean-Luc Godard's own semi-structuralist work 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Yet where Godard's film routinely cast the story of its protagonist against images of social reconstruction and presented prostitution as the result of capitalist expansion and heightened consumerism, Akerman's opus roots her film in a realism that exposes how manufactured so many of the supposedly neorealist films were.

For more than three hours, Akerman captures Delphine Seyrig's Jeanne with static long takes, holding over the pure banality of everyday life with meticulous detail. How could anyone stand this? Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn't feel as long as Jeanne Dielman, and that film was 15-1/2 hours long. And yet, Akerman holds your interest. By never breaking away, always staying on the aspects of life normally elided over in the movies, Akerman not only creates a compelling tension but effectively points out that most films, even the ones purporting to be realistic, skip over the perfunctory moments that define so much of our lives.

Besides, the sheer length of the film, when married to the near-total lack of action, forces the viewer to pay closer attention, and even the bored will find themselves eying the film more critically than usual, even if unconnected to the actual movie. Of course, even those engaged with the film's structure and feminist ideas cannot fully interact with it, as the uncompromising distance Akerman keeps from her character deliberately keeps the audience at arm's length.

The result is a dragging behemoth on a microcosmic scale, forcing the viewer to sit there until it finally becomes clear that we're being made to understand how a person, be it a male or female, feels when trapped in an endless loop, so locked into perfunctory motions that even other people do not register unless they're a part of the rhythm. Even those who do appear in Jeanne's almost solipsistic life barely rate more than a few lines, save her adult son, whose continued dependency upon his mother saddles her with a man to take care of even without her husband.

Akerman spends an entire hour charting Jeanne's first day, laboring over such menial tasks as preparing food, halting dinner conversation and bathing. Amusingly, the only moment elided over in the entire hour is the sex she has with her first john. Where another director would have skipped over everything else to focus on a sex scene, Akerman remains outside Jeanne's bedroom and holds the shot over an instant cut that darkens the frame with passed time. Jeanne receives her payment, places it in a tureen and sends the john on his way and returns to her boiling potatoes, now ready to serve. The director has actually skipped sex to get back to the cooking.

Spending so much time watching these tasks allows us to memorize Jeanne's pattern, which is important when chaos subtly creeps in the next day. Jeanne's hair looks a bit disheveled at times, she forgets to put the lid on the tureen where she keeps her money and she overcooks the potatoes. Such actions would not register to us in any other film, or indeed in our own lives, but Akerman focused so intently on Jeanne's actions in the first day that the audience intuits that each of her chores and mannerisms is the result of years of rote repetition. In this frame of mind, insignificant aberrations and human error stand out, as if Jeanne were a robotic program that suddenly malfunctioned.

Even the nature of the framing changes to alert the viewer that something is going wrong. Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte cycle through carefully placed shots all throughout the first day to communicate the ideas of the film. The camera stays in the doorway of the kitchen, peering in to watch Jeanne work as if trapped in her gender prison. When Jeanne heads out into the hallway to meet her john, Mangolte angles the camera to visually decapitate the protagonist, showing her only from the breasts down as if communicating what men first see in a woman. On the second day, however, some of the camera positions shift, such as a shot of Jeanne from inside the kitchen looking out the door. Chaos reigns, but in a manner far less simple to suss out than in Lars Von Trier's most recent look at tortured women.

As with Antichrist, however, Jeanne Dielman runs on twisted sexual energy. Whenever Jeanne leaves a room, she turns the light off, a seeming gesture of financial concern that is done so absent-mindedly that it ultimately feels like another part of her routine. The constant on/off switching also suggests a subconscious walling-off of the bedroom from the kitchen, separating completely her "mother" and "whore" locations within the house. That the son should leave the lights on as he moves through the house is the first suggestion that he is blurring the lines between the two, and his vaguely Oedipal fixation with his mother elicits the only long dialogues of the film. Even without a husband, Jeanne is still shackled to a man, always trying to please the boy, who ravenously devours all set before him while Jeanne knows exactly how much to portion her meals. On some level, Sylvain understands this, as his quasi-entreaties for her show him reciprocating the husband-worthy attention she places on him with a husband's matrimonial "responsibilities."

For her part, Jeanne exhibits pent-up sexual aggression and anxiety in her activities. Under Akerman's watchful eye, Jeanne's potato peeling takes on an aggressiveness, as does her post-coital bath and scrubbing. Before her shocking final act, the biggest indicator of the character's mental suffering is her frustration with her coffee on the third day. When she tastes her cup, she finds it too bitter and sets about adding milk and sugar, but to no avail. So, she brews another pot, staring at the liquid pouring through the external filter as if watching the hourglass trickle away her life (or sanity). At last, she meets with the third john, and Akerman finally takes us in the bathroom to show Jeanne achieving an orgasm, something that finally makes her think of sex as more than just something between trips to the kitchen. As the man lies on the bed in post-coital relaxation, Jeanne suddenly takes a pair of scissors out of her drawer and stabs the john in his heart, killing him.

Naturally, after three hours and twenty minutes of uneventful shots, the audience suddenly snaps to attention, and the first thought on anyone's mind is, "Why did she just do that?" Any number of explanations exist, depending on the perspective with which you view the film. In rigid feminist terms, maybe the man stand for masculine oppression -- he does, after all, collapse on top of her after he climaxes. More literally, we can assume that he is a previous client, thus raising the question whether he did something in the past. Perhaps the orgasm shook Jeanne awake after walking through her life like a zombie and she killed the man either in the panic of shock or as revenge for making her aware of the awful repetition of her life. Hell, the ending is so open to interpretation that even a writer as analytical and thoughtful as Jonathan Rosenbaum can suggest that the ending exists merely to serve as an ending, that the final act means less than everything that came before it.

Therein lies the brilliance of Akerman's structure: the "story" and cinematography of Jeanne Dielman trap the main character, crushing her in a rectangular prison even on the occasions that she leaves her house. The film itself, however, is limitless with possible meanings and symbols. I have never seen a more realistic film -- and I'm quite tempted to included documentaries in this statement -- yet the film achieves such realism that it becomes abstract. Even the barely perceptible, pulsating light from an outside source that reflects inside the house takes on a surreal flavor, growing from a throbbing dot on the first day to a spread-out wash of flashing light in the aftermath of the murder like a warning klaxon building in its silent scream. Rarely has a director so completely challenged the conventions of cinema, and if some viewers might view the ending of Jeanne Dielman as a broad sign-off for a film that had already frustrated them enough, I found myself as excited as I've been in a while by the freedom and the trust placed in the audience by a director who spent 195 minutes proving beyond a doubt that she knew exactly what she was doing before donating the final six to let the audience start doing some work.


  1. Great essay, Jake. When I saw the film, I could hardly commit to language this lucidly the magic of the film. I resorted to a somewhat stream-consciousness/image-essay format, which is here. I was equally in love with the film. Its conclusion, though often considered contrived and incoherent, feels perfectly mounted in my mind. It's amazing how Akerman builds tension through such a blank facade.

    I love your 9th paragraph about how she is compartmentalizing her various roles in life by incessantly turning the lights off in every room. It's interesting how you link this to her son's Oedipal complex - a reading I haven't witnessed before.

  2. It could be a stretch, but then it's practically impossible to chalk up anything in this film to a whim or something that Akerman simply shot without considering. Even if she pulls back from didacticism, she clearly planned out each and every shot.

  3. Jake, your post makes me really want to find this film. But I'm a bit intimidated by it's length (silly huh?).

    Obviously it's best to see it in one single sitting. But do you think the experience is compromised if I don't make it through in one go?

  4. Well, to be honest, Craig, I had to split it across two days. Granted, I started watching it at 11 p.m. one night so I would have ended up splitting Die Hard under the circumstances. I think you should see as much as you can before switching off, though, because so much of the end relies on how much you retain from the first two hours.

  5. Thanks Jake for the recommendation. It's funny to have to think of a strategy for watching a film.