A widowed homemaker lives in her apartment with her teenage son. She spends her days cleaning and cooking her modest abode, and sleeping with men for money to pay for her lifestyle. As it turns out, this lifestyle is incredibly, torturously dull to watch.
Jeanne Dielman (full title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) has something of a reputation amongst the 1001 Movies community as being one of the most arduous films to get through, due to its ponderous, uneventful and frankly hair-tearingly banal pacing, so I’m not surprised it ended up amongst the Bad lists suggested by Steve and Chip. Steve also ranked it quite highly on his recent appearance on The Lair Of The Unwanted, on a special episode dedicated to the worst films on the 1001 List and, now that I’ve sat through all 201 minutes of it I can vehemently agree.
There is a story here, and a meaningful one at that, and I get where director Chantal Akerman was coming from with her direction, I just think that she succeeded in making a film that very few people will ever learn the lesson of because it’s so difficult to sit through it. Calling it a slog is an understatement, watching this film is a massive undertaking, and never has the List felt more like work than when watching Jeanne Dielman. There’s a bigger problem afoot as well, as it seems the compilers of the 1001 List agree with this statement, as amongst the write-up within the book is this excerpt: “It may be the kind of picture that’s better to contemplate in theory rather than as a vehicle for viewing pleasure.” Is it me, or does that sound like a recommendation not to watch the film? Yet it’s been placed amongst a list of 1001 Movies you must WATCH before you die. Contradictory, no?
So what’s the problem here? Well, the film’s aim, I believe, is to portray the intense boredom and monotony experienced by Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), the futility of her existence, and how suppressing this realisation can lead to extreme actions. To show this we’re given access to the minutiae of her day, and when I say access I mean we sit and watch her peeling potatoes until all the potatoes are peeled. She also knits. And cleans. After the first gentleman caller leaves, we watch her take a bath, in its entirety, then get out and clean the bath. This sequence is particularly uncomfortable as Dielman is naked and oblivious to our presence, as though we’re watching through a keyhole. On the first evening, after her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) arrives home, we watch them eat the whole of their dinner at the table, mostly in silence. That’s the whole soup course, then we watch Jeanne go to the kitchen, plate up the main, then return to the table and eat all that too. It was here that we had our first incredibly tense moment of drama when, after finishing the meal, Jeanne goes to take Sylvian’s glass, but he hasn’t finished with it yet! He reaches out and snatches it away before she can remove it, before hastily gulping down the remaining drink and handing it over, whilst his mother waits with an impatient look on her face. Oh the tension!
I’ll be honest, I didn’t give this film my full attention, nor did I watch it in one sitting. In fact, my viewing was split over at least four sessions, and other activities were enjoyed during the viewing, including writing Christmas cards, preparing other blog posts and folding origami cranes, because I’m pretty sure that if I’d watched this whole “film” in one sitting with nothing to hold my attention but the wide expanse of yawn-inducing tedium on the screen, there’s absolutely zero chance of me making it over half an hour without falling asleep. Even with it being a somewhat distracted viewing experience, I still feel like I got the overall message, which says to me that Jeanne Dielman absolutely does not need to be well over three hours long. Also, I should not be able to do more things whilst watching a film than the main character of said film is accomplishing within the film itself. I believe the story could have been justifiably told in the space of an hour, maybe an hour and a half, max. Making it an epic length only reduces the number of people who will ever watch it. Yes, fine, it allows more of the repetitive mundanity to feel repeated and mundane, and the gradual breakdown of Jeanne’s character is given more time to occur – after the second gentleman caller, she over-boils some potatoes, misses a button on her housecoat, drops the brush when polishing shoes – but I feel a more competent director could have handled this far more succinctly and with just as much impact, if not even more. This is especially the case when it comes to spending an entire eleven minute sequence on Jeanne ascertaining that her coffee has gone bad and filters some more. At least I learned how to filter coffee, something I’ve never done before.
I did love the audacity of a film this boring having a main character who wakes up far too early in the final act and is therefore very tired later that day, and we see her almost drifting off to sleep whilst sitting and doing nothing, three times. It almost dares the audience to fall asleep with her, although I’m sure by this time the majority of people who haven’t turned the film off are only present because they’re in the midst of a pretty great nap. Oh, and to make matters worse, what is already an intolerable piece of cinema goes even further and exacerbates the situation by having three solid minutes of a baby bawling towards the end, which is easily the most enraging sound I can conceive of. You see, Jeanne’s neighbour occasionally has to pop out, and Jeanne looks after her baby during these brief sojourns. However it’s clear that the baby despises Jeanne and her attempts to please it, so responds to any kind of attention or proximity with shrieks and wails, leaving Jeanne to eventually abandon said child in the lounge whilst she eats her lunch in the kitchen. When Jeanne leaves the baby however the wails subside, and we had that strangest of moments where I was watching a film and hoping that an innocent baby might die or be injured in some way, so as to provide the merest semblance of confrontation and action, as up until this point the most exciting aspect of Jeanne’s day had been when she arrived at her usual cafe a little later that usual, only to find that another customer was in her usual seat and her regular waitress had finished for the day.
So yeah, fuck this film. It’s a monumental waste of time. If you do, for some bizarre reason, decide to watch it, take my advice and skip the entire second day, I doubt you’ll miss anything of any value, because there’s nothing of any value in this entire film. Another way of getting through it: take a drink every time Jeanne walks through a doorway, and another when she turns a light on or off. And take another drink every time you regret ever watching this film.
Choose Life 2/10