Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Version I Watched: Full 201 minute cut on the Criterion DVD.

History: Inspired by her own mother's ritualistic schedule, Chantal Akerman wrote what would be the rough script for this film and even received a government grant of $120,000 to film it. The film depicts sequences in real time like cooking, cleaning, eating, and so forth, showing the rigorous and tedious nature of her life.
The film was a financial success in Europe and has been a critical success across the world. Even the slow pace and hefty length are praised, stating the film needs it to be effective. And while Akerman doesn't believe she was a feminist filmmaker, her work here was also highly praised by feminist viewers specifically.

Personal History: My first viewing with minimal knowledge prior to viewing.

ReviewYou know what's great? When after seeing hundreds upon thousands of movies you still find yourself surprised by something new to you. That when you thought you've seen it all, all the tricks of the trade and approached that work on film, you find something that finds a new way to speak in it's own voice and be truly unique.
Chantal Akerman, may she rest in peace as of a month ago, is one of those filmmakers I've always heard about but haven't seen much of her work. I did get a look at her short films back in college where I got a sample of what I would eventually see here. My favorite being Hotel Monterey, which has cinematography and ambiance eerily similar to The Shining years before The Shining... you can see here.
After looking into more of her work I knew quickly that Jeanne Dielman would be the one I would want to see over anything else. One of those films where the concept alone was enough to capture my attention. A unique concept with a unique approach that I'm glad I didn't see til now because I'm not sure how much I would have appreciated it when I first heard of it.
Jeanne Dielman has a simple plot. It's about a middle aged widow who has her life stuck in a strict routine of chores, cooking, errands, caring for her teenage son, and turning the occasional trick with local men to make ends meet. Her life is portrayed as systematic and boring, supported by the lengthy 3 1/2 hour runtime.
If this sounds like a dull experience than you are definitely right because it was suppose to be. One thing Chantal Akerman pulls of incredibly well is getting her point across in the most compelling and surprising way imaginable. Simply put I was more immersed and interested in this very intentionally slow burn than I was in films less than half the length with more than five times as much going on story-wise. How does that work?
The first and foremost is the cinematography and how it is laid out. The story takes place over three days but the events we're shown over those three days are shot and played out in real time. Example: Evening of day one she sits down to dinner with her son. She brings in the soup. A single, uncut shot shows them sitting in silence eating the soup. She takes the bowls away. Cut to to the kitchen where she scoops up the meat and potatoes. Cut back to the dinner table where they proceed to eat their main course to the bottom. Riveting.
Okay so that last comment was a bit snarky, I admit. Really, though, it's the long tracking that turns what would otherwise be any other 'this old woman is sick of her dull life and needs change' story and truly makes it dull, forcing you to feel her emotional pain. Again, something that ironically works so well because I grew to care about this woman, even joining in her little victories she gets throughout the day. Little victories and growth that don't exactly bring her joy, at least not from what we're able to tell by her expression.
Jeanne Dielman damn near never smiles, if at all, throughout this entire story. She doesn't look sad, either. She doesn't look mad, glad, nothing. She maintains a level of neutral that's to the point of concerning until the third day when she realizes how badly she needs to change. Something that is handled with supreme subtly that you may not even realize.

Which brings me to one of my favorite moments late in the film when it's a single shot that lasts at least a couple minutes (I wasn't counting at the time) and she's just sitting in a chair doing nothing but thinking. We don't know what she's thinking. She doesn't say a thing and she doesn't have to. A great deal of character and emotion is expressed in that moment in a way few can actually pull off.
Love it cause it's something we've all done at some point. Not doing anything active physically, but mentally running a mile a minute.
Have I mentioned there's no music? Well, no non-organic music. The only soundtrack here is when the radio is on and the natural sounds of Jeanne's kitchen, the city streets when she's out and about, and so forth. It sets the environment in a beautiful manner, again aiding the immersion and keeping the very long runtime feeling not as long. 
Speaking of, I have an idea why I think such a dull slow experience works better than supposedly fast paced, yet shorter stories. Or at least why I found this so well put together and exciting when for all intents and purposes it really shouldn't. Much like films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, where there may be a lot going on but it takes it sweet, sweet time getting there, it takes advantage of the slow pace. What I sometimes have trouble with in stories that come off as fast paced but actually have a longer runtime is burnout. Some flicks, like Lord of the Rings, are so long and they have so much going on and so much to remember that it feels like a longer experience than it really is, and those are so long to begin with.

This is a rare example of art that is so well done I have very few complaints because some of the complaints I may have had otherwise were done intentionally and done so well. The slow burn, the bland characters that speak volumes, even the static cinematography that never swipes or zooms, only stays still.
I did, however, didn't care for the turning tricks and the ending.
Maybe it's the fact that I'm coming from an American, suburban, male perspective but the whole turning tricks thing felt a tad out of place to me. In my eyes that would seen as hitting rock bottom but I never got the impression she was so desperate that she had to resort to such a thing. Maybe it was the easiest and most convenient considering her position, I suppose, or maybe it made her enough money and was easy... labor. I more so got the impression the story was about having a sad and dull life, not one that was a means of desperation and hitting rock bottom. Which is why I also felt the ending was out of place. It was quite an exclamation point to an otherwise long paragraph that was this film. An exclamation that was like a slap to the face of unnecessary.
I've read that this is one of the most praised feminist films ever made. I can see why since it exposes what was definitely the dull life of a woman in and of that time and before that, as well as her re-thinking her current life and attempting to rise above it in the only way she knows how, which sound cornier than what this film actually portrays, even if the end is a little extreme in that feminism approach. Still it's ironic that this is considered feminist because Akerman herself never called herself a feminist or so I've heard.
I highly recommend this to anyone with an artistically open mind who is willing to sit through something so lengthy with little going on. It may not sound appealing at first, me even dreading the experience before i started, worried I wouldn't enjoy it, but you may find yourself surprised. I would tell you to stick it through to the end, but if you made it through the first act and you found it unbearable I have a feeling the following two acts won't save you and your interest in it. The film is subtle to the extreme.