what i watched last week
o.j. simpson never sleeps

film fatales #7: jeanne dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 bruxelles (chantal akerman, 1975)

I admit to some trepidation as I approached this film, which runs for 3 hours and 21 minutes and which, to the best of my knowledge coming in, consisted mostly of a woman doing dishes and making dinner. A friend said I shouldn’t be scared, just set some time aside and take it in, and it turns out she was right. I might have taken 4 hours to watch it ... there are a couple of convenient places where a break can be taken without doing too much damage to the film. But watch it I did, and it is very impressive.

So much of what Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte present seems off-putting. There is no camera movement ... once the camera is placed, we see only what it sees until a new shot begins. Akerman doesn’t rely much on quick cuts, either, so Jeanne Dielman is static for much of its running time. Which doesn’t mean “nothing happens”, but the audience is forced to slow down to the pace of the film. At one point, I imagined my wife at a baseball game ... she’s not a fan, she finds it boring ... if she had to watch a 3 hour and 21 minute game, she might try to find something to grab her attention, but eventually I’d guess she’d just give up. You will be tempted to give up on Jeanne Dielman if you decide to watch it. And I wouldn’t blame you at all if you did decide you had better things to do.

But the boredom is necessary, as is the length of the film. The boredom is cumulative (which is another reason why a person might want to avoid it) ... you are more bored after half an hour than you are at the beginning, more bored after an hour than you were thirty minutes before. Much of the boredom is due to the repetitive nature of Jeanne’s life. She makes breakfast, wakes up her son, makes and drinks coffee, sees her son off to school, cleans house, goes shopping, entertains clients at home (she works on what seems to be a part-time basis as a prostitute), cleans up some more, makes dinner, welcomes her son when he returns from school, eats dinner with him, puts him to bed, goes to bed herself, and gets up the next morning to make breakfast again. She is very compulsive, always turning lights off when she leaves a room, then turning them on again when she returns. Her coats are perhaps the most interesting aspect of her compulsions. There’s a housecoat she puts on when she gets out of bed. There’s a coat-length kind of apron that she wears when she’s got good clothes on and wants to make sure they don’t get dirty. She has a coat she wears when she leaves the house. And every time she puts on a coat, she buttons all of the buttons, and when she takes it off, she unbuttons all of the buttons and hangs the coat up. The buttoning gets annoying after awhile ... OK, we get the point, she’s compulsive, do we have to watch the entire process every single time?

And then, in one scene in the second half of the movie, she forgets to do one of the buttons. It has about the same impact on the audience as Norman Bates turning up in the shower with a knife. I worried I was going to spend the rest of the movie wondering about that button, but luckily, her son notices, saying “your button” ... she fixes it, to the relief of everyone.

As the boredom accumulates, our understanding of Jeanne also accumulates. For whatever reason, she is defined by her routine. The film is broken into three segments, each showing us a day in her life, and by Day Three, you know that she is different. But if you started watching at that point, you might not notice anything was wrong at all. The differences are subtle, and the only way you can spot them is if you’ve been paying attention the first two days. I won’t say she’s going crazy ... whatever plagues her, it was there before we meet her, so “going” isn’t the right word. But once you see how she is changing, you realize what came before was far more troubled than you might have thought. Her insistence on routine is no longer quirky ... now it’s a sign that she is barely holding things together.

My favorite line came after the Potato Scene. She puts potatoes on to boil, but neglects them for too long. She throws them out, then finds she only has one potato left, so she goes back to the store and buys a bag of potatoes. When she returns, she starts peeling the potatoes, but she no longer has the obsessive precision we have seen previously. She seems frustrated by the potatoes, she stops and starts ... something is clearly wrong. Her son comes home and notes that her hair is a mess. She replies, “I let the potatoes cook too long.” I’d say it was the funniest line in the movie, if it wasn’t so obviously sad.

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne is, to my mind, the best and most important thing about the film. It’s Akerman’s idea, and Mangolte has a strong effect on the finished product. But Seyrig is given an impossible task: to portray a woman (who is on screen for virtually the entire 201 minutes) who puts on an armor to prevent us from seeing the “real” her inside the shell, but gradually giving us peeks at what is going on in her head. The differences are subtle ... like I say, if you hadn’t already watched her for two hours, you might not notice right away that she was faltering by that third hour. This isn’t Carrie Mathison, leaping from one side of her bi-polarness to the other, always getting our attention (and ensuring that Claire Danes will always have Emmy-winning material). As Seyrig plays it, Jeanne is more like Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face. Jeanne’s face is nearly as inexpressive as Scob’s Christiane, only Seyrig isn’t wearing a mask. She’s acting. And as the movie goes on and on, it is Seyrig that gives us the gradual, if minimal, progress in Jeanne’s life.

Jeanne Dielman let the potatoes cook too long, and that was one of the most important events in the movie. At the beginning, you can’t believe you’ll still be watching 3 1/2 hours later. But by the time she over-cooked those potatoes, they had me. #90 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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