Judge Clark Douglas wrote this review in real time.
An overlong bore or a compelling masterpiece?
"A bag of potatoes, please."
Facts of the Case
Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig, Last Year at Marienbad) is a French woman whose life seems to be ordinary for the most part. She is a single mother to a teenage son (Jan Decorte). Over the course of the film's 201-minute running time, we watch Jeanne as she cleans, cooks, and does other assorted things around the house. Every afternoon, a man comes over and pays Jeanne a small fee for sexual services. After the man leaves, she takes a bath, tidies up, and cooks dinner as she waits for her son to get home. After a few days of this, Jeanne does something shocking. What was the inspiration for her actions? Are the clues contained in what we have just seen?
I have always been somewhat amused/bothered by the odd manner in which cinema fudges with time. It is not at all uncommon for a man to sit down at a dinner table with a declaration like, "I only have a half-hour," only to get up and leave some three minutes later. We're supposed to accept it because that's how things work. Whenever a film actually does occur in real time, it's usually because we're watching some sort of high-octane gimmicky thriller like Phone Booth, Nick of Time, or 88 Minutes. Chantal Akerman's unusual (and unusually titled) Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles vigorously defies such standard practices, offering an occasionally patience-testing series of domestic activities in real time. If you think that sounds horribly dull, I don't blame you. I feared the same thing before actually seeing the film. It does take some time and patience, but the observant viewer will be rewarded with a genuine masterpiece of cinematic form.
At first it seems as if the film is attempting to hide anything genuinely substantial or revealing about Jeanne to us. As the film opens, we see her escort a man back to her bedroom and shut the door. One cut later, and she is politely escorting the man out. He tips his hat and tells her that he will see her at the same time next week. She nods and smiles, then goes about her routine. We watch her take a bath. It is not the sort of bath we are used to seeing in the movies, considering that its primary purpose seems to have something to do with cleanliness. Jeanne dresses and begins to make dinner. Most films would let us watch her begin to fill a pot with water and then cut away to the next thing. Here, we keep watching every little detail until the meal is ready. There is no underscore to provide us with emotions or light entertainment, no conversation to focus on…just a woman cooking.
Jeanne's son arrives, and they begin to have a discussion at the dinner table. Perhaps we will learn something now. We do hear a bit about Jeanne's past, but nothing particularly substantial. She reads a rambling letter from a relative, and helps her son with his homework. Her relationship with him is the sort of relationship that you might expect a mother and her teenage son to have. He is somewhat cocky, know-it-all-ish, and moody, while she is ceaselessly helpful and loving, looking out for his every need. She cleans his room, scrubs his shoes, and prepares his lunch for school. All of these actions are given that same aforementioned level of intense attention, going all the way up to the point where most of us would normally start losing interest and then continuing to run until we come back around and get interested again. Only then does it cut away to something else.
Akerman shoots the film in an objective, detached manner that is very honest and frank. She does not allow her camera to peer around the room voyeuristically, typically taking an ordinary classical position just far away enough from the action to get a decent view of what is going on and then just letting the camera roll. She does this regardless of what Jeanne is doing, which subtly seems to equate the importance of everything in the film. There are a few moments that would stand out as "important" in a traditional film, but they are not given any more attention or regard than the moments that seem thoroughly bland and unimportant. Is everything essential? Is nothing essential? Is Akerman attempting to mislead us, or does she really want us to pay strict attention to everything?
These are just some of the questions we ask ourselves throughout the film, but the questions multiply considerably once the ending arrives. I will not spoil what exactly happens during the startling conclusion, but suffice it to say that it is startling. It makes us question everything we have seen. Has this event been slowly building up over the entire course of the film? Or was it something that happened suddenly; something that Jeanne had never anticipated would happen until that very moment? Is Akerman attempting to make a statement on the lives of homemakers? These questions can not be answered definitively short of getting Akerman to actually spell out her intentions for you (note: I am including a link to an interview with Akerman in which she clearly defines the turning point in the film in a surprisingly frank manner, so if you're curious to know more after seeing it, click away), but they are fascinating to ponder. The film may be a challenging viewing experience, but it offers the rewards of being both a genuinely compelling conversation piece and one of those thoroughly original cinematic experiences that will never be forgotten.
The transfer is mostly quite strong, even if the film does retain that unfortunate '70s look that afflicted so many films of that era. Flecks and scratches are kept to an absolute minimum. Flesh tones are accurate, blacks are deep, and the colorful-yet-sterile color palette is kept intact admirably. The image is just a little soft at times, though nothing too problematic. The natural grain is left intact and is unobtrusive. The mono audio is somewhat less remarkable, as there are a few sharp noises throughout that seem a bit too harsh and rugged. Otherwise, the generally quiet track (this film is often silent or near-silent) gets the job done.
Criterion has supplied their typically generous batch of bonus features. There is no audio commentary (I would pity the cinephile attempting to talk his or her way through this entire thing), but a second disc offers plenty of goodies. The longest of these is the 69-minute documentary "Autour de Jeanne Dielman," which was made by actor Sami Fray during the time of the film's production. You also get an excerpt from Akerman from a 1997 French television program, an archival interview with Akerman and Seyrig, and an 11-minute short film called "Saute ma ville" that represents Akerman's very first directorial effort. Jumping to the present, we also get new interviews with Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte and an interview with Akerman's mother. Finally, a booklet featuring a brilliant essay by film scholar Ivone Margulies is included. Great stuff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have no complaints about the content of the film, but I will warn you that you should be alert and attentive when you view this film. It's 201 minutes and it feels even longer. It is in some ways intentionally designed to bore the viewer and test their patience. The film would not be as great as it is without its considerable length, but the greatness of the film does indeed come at a cost.
Jeanne Dielman is a fascinating experience. It may be a while before I work up the nerve to dig through the whole thing again, but I would highly recommend that any true cinema buff experience this film at least once. Criterion's superb release should seal the deal.
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