Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and Other 'Hypnotic' Movies





I must admit that I saw this film more out of a sense of duty than anything else. I’m not particularly fond of slow cinema and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles is famously slow. But it’s also one of the most acclaimed avant-garde films ever made, and I like to see acclaimed films for myself. In 200 minutes of completely static shots, without any non-diegetic music, it focuses on three days in the life of a widowed housewife, played by Delphine Seyrig, who is here made to look as plain and frumpy as she was glamorous in Last Year at Marienbad. The only other major character is her son, in his late teens I would guess, whom she dotes on intently in the mornings and evenings. During her long, solitary days (she seems to have no friends and few acquaintances) we see her preparing food and washing dishes and making beds and shopping, and each task is shown in real time. It should be terrible. Somehow it’s not. In the DVD extras the director Chantal Akerman discusses how she was influenced by La Region Centrale and other films by Canadian director, Michael Snow, one of avant-garde cinema’s most famous names. I’ve only ever seen one of his creations - Wavelength - which consists of a single shot of a room that zooms in very, very slowly to a particular point over the space of 40 minutes or more. I quite liked it. It was hypnotic. Similarly, Jeanne Dielman is quite hypnotic, and by comparison with Wavelength it’s action-packed.

Having said that, when a film’s only goal is to lull you into a trance-like state, to work on you like instrumental music, its creators shouldn’t be surprised if some viewers react with scorn, and it’s no surprise that when Jeanne Dielman was originally shown at the Cannes film festival there were many walk-outs. When you throw out conventional narrative, you inevitably enter into a world of deeply subjective responses. Narratives can have an automatic universality. A 10 year old and an 80 year-old, an Arab and an Eskimo, can all appreciate a Disney movie or Die Hard. But taste in music is more varied because it’s more of a learned thing and it’d be hard to find a single piece of music that would satisfy these four types of people. (Many people like to think certain famous classical works have this innate universality but such people rarely have much experience of the non-Western world). I can say I liked Jeanne Dielman but that’s not the same thing as saying I would recommend it, because recommending something implies that you think most people would appreciate it. I got on board in this particular case but even then I had to watch it in four separate chunks and I’m glad I didn’t see it in a cinema. It was like listening to an album of pleasing atmospheric noises; I could appreciate that mood for 40 minutes or so but no longer.

I’ve often heard people use the ‘mood-piece’ justification - i.e. just relax and let it wash over you - for other films low on narrative like L’Aventurra, Solaris, Gerry, and Tropical Malady and in each of those cases I didn’t get it at all. With L’Aventurra and Gerry I found the mood deadening. With Solaris, once the movie got to the space station it all seemed pointlessly grim. With Tropical Malady we’re wandering around a jungle for nearly two hours; nothing happens and it’s just irritating. With Jeanne Dielman however, time went much quicker. It sometimes seems that with works like these they either click with you for tenuous reasons, or they just strike you as a complete waste of time. But I can't help thinking there must be more to it than that. These movies are often called 'hypnotic' but of course a hypnotist works initially by doing something metronomic, like swinging a pocket-watch in front of your eyes. The problem with many of these films is that they aren't metronomic enough. They're like watching a hypnotist just hold that watch very still: there's no beat or pulse to latch onto, there's nothing to mark the time, and it's not very 'hypnotic' at all. 

Jeanne Dielman is at least different in this respect. The sound design is very carefully calibrated. You have Seyrig’s pleasing, calming voice muttering banalities to her son, and the rhythmic noises of her tasks: the sound of her putting lids on pans, or rinsing plates, or arranging cutlery. She’s always coming and going, opening and closing doors, and the wooden floorboards pick up every clack of her heels. One can sit back and relax and even fall asleep to this. I don’t mean that as a jibe. The film is genuinely meditative and peaceful. It may be because it puts the viewer back into the role of an infant happily observing a mother going about her duties. And there was another reason I liked it. Apart from the mother and son’s night-time walks, which are badly-lit, I loved the look of the film. Jeanne’s kitchen - surely one of cinema’s most famous kitchens (there’s not much competition after all) - is super-bright, as if it were part of a giant toy-house. And all the other shots of the apartment and the apartment building have a pristine, crystalline quality which makes the film look newer than most films made in 2012. The colours stand out. The contrasts are marked. 

Jeanne Dielman does become a very real character to the viewer due to this detailed examination of her daily rituals and that’s another way it's better than the aforementioned films, none of which had any characters I could respond to. At the same time I was left with the feeling at the end ‘Yes, that was original, that was new, but I still think a conventional narrative, done well, can be more powerful and affecting’. And isn’t that the point after all? I guess other people - critics especially - value uniqueness for uniqueness’ sake more than I do. I think Jeanne Dielman is a bit like the filmic equivalent to Samuel Beckett’s novel, Murphy, which is a totally original piece of writing, but also a work without much emotion, which doesn’t reach out and touch you the way many other more conventional novels do.

In the last hour or so of the film, covering the third and final day, Jeanne’s routine-based life starts to unravel in many small ways. She goes out shopping too early and the shops aren’t open yet, she does her usual tasks carelessly and drops things, someone’s sitting in her usual seat in the coffee-shop, and so on. A tension builds that is more like real-life tension than movie tension: it’s perturbing rather than gripping. Then, completely unprovoked, she does something very, very shocking.

Jeanne Dielman was acclaimed at the time as an important feminist film in that it showed the reality of life for millions of women. But I wonder if many women in 2012 would care about this message since her life seems fairly simple and easy and her routine is so relaxed compared to today’s norm; the housework she stretches out so that it lasts all day is the same housework people nowadays squeeze into an hour or so when they get home at night. If the point was to show how boring her life is, one can't help thinking 'Well, get a job!'. Once a day she welcomes a male visitor and gets paid for it, so there is that aspect to ponder on too. But since these liaisons take up just a tiny amount of the screen-time, and until the very end the sex goes on behind closed doors, and there’s virtually no conversation between her and the men, and we have no idea how she feels about it, the only possible reaction is “Ok, so that’s what she does, it’s up to her’. That was my reaction for most of the film, anyway; then the final moments make you wonder and perhaps feel perplexed about this element.

In the final scene the unexplained blue light that we’ve seen before in the background whenever she’s at the dinner table is once again flickering over her head. Maybe it’s the reflection of a flashing light on a police car outside. Maybe not. It’s probably best not to try to explain it because there are logical problems in that interpretation. Likewise if you try to explain why she commits the shocking act you might only come up with the idea that she turned into a psycho that particular day because in all the shops in town she couldn’t find a button to replace the missing one on her jacket. And in that case Jeanne Dielman starts to resemble Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, probably not a comparison the director would appreciate. However, if you can just enjoy the mood of those last few moments, as she contemplates what she’s done, then the film works very effectively.

When Sight and Sound Magazine published their 2012 list of the greatest ever films there were only three movies in the top 50 which I hadn’t seen. One of them was Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, which I have since watched. It was a good movie, but kind of unremarkable, and I have no idea why it made the top 50 when many others from the same decade which are clearly far better - The Wages of Fear, La Strada, Sansho The Bailiff, Wild Strawberries, Anatomy Of A Murder etc etc - did not. Another was Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles and, whilst I wouldn’t put it anywhere near my own top 50, I can more easily understand why it made the Sight and Sound list. It’s not exactly a great film, but it is a striking work of cinema. The only one I’ve got left to see now is Satantango: a 7-hour Bela Tarr film…I’m not looking forward to it but it has to be attempted, at least!



I caught up with Satantango a few weeks later: click here for a full review







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