Tuesday, February 12, 2013

‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ (1975) directed by Chantal Akerman

One of the most exciting events in Jeanne Dielman is when she drops a spoon on the floor.  It's the kind of film where the prospect of some potatoes being overcooked is an epoch changing catastrophe.  Not much happens in Jeanne Dielman.  It’s a three and a half hour long film depicting two and a half days in the life of a slowly unravelling housewife (and occasional sex worker) and by the end of it by god you’re going to know exactly how soul-crushingly miserable domesticity is. 

Settling down to watch this is like being on some kind of time-warping drug.  It makes a mockery of every other film's pretension towards realism.  You're shown endless, mind-warping long shots of our lead doing the dishes, peeling some potatoes or laying the table.  By about an hour in I was softly rocking backwards and forwards, eyes transfixed on the screen.  Two hours in my teeth were grindingly gritted in tension.  By the time the film was over my conception of time was completely out of whack.  Everything seemed to be moving in fast forward.

Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig)
Jeanne Dielman raises some interesting structural questions about cinema.  Film allows us intense experiences beyond everyday life, an opportunity to experience, without consequence, the infinite range of human emotions.  Boredom and the sheer horror of the mundane are what Jeanne Dielman has to offer. Sure you could put yourself into the scuffed boots of a futuristic cyborg warrior or the bonnet of a blushingly lovelorn Edwardian maiden but isn’t that just vain escapism?  It’s the little stories that are as important as the big ones: watching an unbroken shot of a crushed woman stone-facedly kneading a lump of mince for 5 minutes arguably gives you more insight into the human condition than 90 minutes of rah-rah car chases and flying kicks to the face. 

Everything about Jeanne Dielman is so utterly dialled down that even the tiniest events become earth-shattering.  The events exist in a monotonous purgatory; the vast majority of the film takes place inside a tiny flat, the solitude of Jeanne only punctuated by her weirdly withdrawn son silently eating dinner with her and sleeping on a sofa bed, someone dropping off a baby for her to look after and her clients turning up for perfunctory, dispassionate sex.

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman
The lengths the film goes to sap the sensationalism and titillation out are perversely impressive.  With the camera staring unblinkingly at Jeanne we observe her doing every minute part of every mundane task you can think of.  Yet when her clients show up (she has one a day), we do not follow her inside her bedroom.  We’re left, standing outside staring at the door, our curiosity growing as we idly wonder just what the hell is going in there. 

You get a lot of time to think about stuff over the course of this film, there’s no real plot to speak of, so the mind wandering off on its own isn’t such a bad thing.  Questions start to bob about in your brain.  How did her husband die?  How on earth did Jeanne begin prostituting herself?  Why do her clients come back to this semi-robotic emotionless cypher? Why does her son sleep on a sofa bed?  What on earth is that rhythmic light flickering outside her window?  You hunger for some dark secret lurking at the heart of the film, filling in the blanks.  Eventually it becomes apparent that there is nothing except the nightmare of  normality.

Jeanne Dielman as played by Delphine Seyrig 
In an early scene we see Jeanne having a bath after a visit from one of her clients, my initial reaction to the still, motionless shot was that it positions the audience as a voyeur, staring in on Jeanne's life like she's a rat in a maze.  The mundanity of the tasks we see her perform bring to mind surveillance footage, poring over someone’s actions to try and deduce some greater meaning.  As we get further through the film, I began to realise that rather than a Gods-eye view of the world, we’re being placed in the same domestic sphere as Jeanne.  The camera is always placed in such a way that if we were viewing the events through someone’s eyes, they’d be in plain sight.  This heightens your sense of involvement, placing you sitting opposite Jeanne as she fruitlessly tries to drink a cup of coffee, somehow not realising that no matter how much sugar she adds, it will still be bad.

As the film crawls onwards, we begin to notice imperceptible changes in Jeanne.  She doesn’t replace the lid of a china pot, her hair becomes slightly skewiff, she leaves the window open and most egregiously, she spoils the potatoes.  These tiny errors are momentous, in a film where not much happens, anything happening becomes cataclysmic.  I wasn’t being sarcastic or sniffy when I said that her dropping a spoon is exciting – it really, really is.  This thrill at tiny events is only possible if you’re prepared to sit through an hour or more of pretty much nothing happening.  You find yourself practically breathing in time with the character after about 90 minutes, so when her routine begins to unravel even the slightest slips become quite a big deal.

(spoilers below)

This is basically Jeanne Dielman (actress: Delphine Seyrig)
The culmination of this slow onset of madness is when she has some kind of disturbing sexual experience and stabs her client in the neck with a pair of scissors, killing him.   It's almost funny how mundane this act is; as much dramatic weight is given to it as a shoe brush being dropped earlier in the film.  Many people read Jeanne's behaviour in bed as her having an orgasm.  I don't see it this way, the vested and moustached man weakly grinding away on top of her, pressing her down against the mattress isn't exactly a paragon of sexual dynamism.  I see it as her reaction to the full torment of her life dawning upon her, each one of his feeble thrusts underlining just how horrible things have become.

It's like a wakeup call to a woman trapped in purgatory, her eyes opening to the low-level misery that she wallows in.  Faced with her utter lack of agency in life she seeks to reassert herself, and it just so happens that this particular guy is going to get it in the neck.

Jeanne Dielman is a film with a strict adherence to reality, and yet the point of comparison I kept coming back to was David Lynch's Eraserhead.  Like Eraserhead's Henry Spencer, Jeanne leads a largely solitary life in a cold, unfriendly industrial landscape.  Ambient background noise fills her flat, providing a constant low level soundtrack of distant activity.  Somehow this reminder of the world ticking along outside makes the apartments in both films that much more isolated.  Adding to this is the flickering blue light that flashes across the walls of Jeanne's apartment whenever she turns the light off.  The source of this light is never revealed, yet adds a nice effect that's both expressionistic and naturalistic at the same time, the flickering on the walls coming to signify Jeanne's fracturing psyche.  This creates a threatening and unnerving atmosphere; both character's surroundings reflect their respective mental landscape, although arguably Jeanne's becomes more disturbing purely because of its unassuming nature.

Lotta' sitting around as Delphine Seyrig plays Jeanne Dielman.
Perhaps the clearest point of comparison comes when Jeanne is asked to babysit a neighbour's baby.  After a prolonged period of nothing (seriously, she just sits immobile in a chair in silence for five minutes, pictured) the baby is a sudden, unwanted injection of bawling life into the sterile flat.  In Jeanne Dielman, the baby screams like a banshee whenever Jeanne picks him up.  It's a horrible sound, like nails being dragged down a blackboard.  There are obvious parallels here to the deformed, doomed child monster of Eraserhead.

So, Jeanne Dielman: "Eraserhead for housewives".  As disturbing as Eraserhead is, I think Jeanne Dielman probably has it beaten on sheer brutality towards both its subject and audience.  If you watch this film you're going to have to understand that if you're bored, pissed off and vaguely horrified then it's firing on all cylinders.  Enjoying this made me feel like a masochist - watching this is an experience maybe no other film provides.  I'm glad I sat through all 201 minutes of it.  I'm equally glad I never ever have to watch it again.

‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ is playing at the BFI Southbank on the 27th of February.  Go and see it. I dare you!  I double dare you!  Bet you haven't got what it takes!

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1 Responses to “‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ (1975) directed by Chantal Akerman”

Pranav Bhople said...
May 9, 2013 at 7:17 PM

Just finished watching this and I must say that is one challenging heck of movie there. But the most unnerving fact about the movie is that the tension and edgy atmosphere that the film exudes is actually created by the nothingness. The parallels you draw to Eraserhead stand accurate, in my view atleast, as I remember being reminded of it while watching the movie too. One more thing on which I would agree with you is that,in my opinion,inspite of the popular idea that people get after watching the only sex scene the movie offers, that she is experiencing an orgasm, what it seems to me is just uneasy twitching due to a realization of doing something that she should have resisted earlier.
And what causes this realization : the subtle yet startling, trivial yet unnerving changes in her drab but familiar routine. A popular opinion is that the violence at the end was caused by the novel feelings aroused in her during the third sexual act, to which she was hitherto unaccustomed. My interpretation was rather that the changes in her routine that had set in since the previous night and upto the time the third customer comes were the major reason for the upheaval and that really disarmed her and her fake, assumed calmness. She was already in total disarray by the evening of the third day. Though I agree that the her breakdown occurs during the sexual act, it wasn't because of a first orgasm, but rather a first attempt by her to resist the flow of things and restructure herself.

Huff, all in all, a really brutal, uncompromising viewing experience with hardly anything to compare to. Really liked your article, well written.

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