Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Directed by Chantal Ackerman
Starring: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte
Every 10 years, Sight and Sound, arguably the MOST prestigious cinema magazine asks an increasingly large pool of critics from around the world to rank their top 10 films. The scores are tallied, and the aggregated ranking is presented to the public, a ranking which purports to be a definitive list of “the greatest movies of all time.” Since 1962, Citizen Kane stood atop the poll, but, in 2012, Vertigo boldly usurped the top spot. Much debate among cinephiles ensued, and the dust had barely settled before this most recent list was printed. Imagine everyone’s shock, then, when this cult feminist piece about a single mother/sex worker topped the most recent iteration.
Much like The Bat Signal, this film beaconed into the night, calling to the very purpose of this blog. Also, like Batman, I have a feeling that I’m going to end up fighting a bunch of clowns over this movie.
Upon scanning the Sight & Sound poll, I found that I’d only seen half of the top entries! This month, I’m filling in those knowledge gaps with…
This month’s first entry is, naturally, the poll’s number one pick.
Jeanne Dielman is a single mother who’s trying to get her teenage son, Sylvain, through a premiere Flemish school. Near every moment of her life is spent keeping the house in order so that her routine runs like clockwork. Then, every afternoon, a client comes to visit Jeanne’s apartment, and the two retire to her bedroom for a number of hours. The film tactfully skips what activities the couple might be doing in there, jumping forward to the client paying Ms. Dielman, then scheduling an appointment for next week.
Not long after, her son comes home, and she serves him dinner, helps him with school, and accompanies him to a social club’s evening activities. She goes to bed, and the film displays a title card telling us how many days of her life we’ve watched.
During the second day of Jeanne’s recorded life, something ominous happens during her client’s visit (presumably he crossed intimate boundaries, falsely believing that he could do whatever he wanted to Jeanne due to her occupation). Afterwards, Jeanne becomes spacey, shaken, and occasionally despondent–her hair’s out of place, she doesn’t button her coat, she drops a shoe-shining brush. Both Jeanne and the audience know all too well that the nature of her work and society’s gender roles forbid her from reporting whatever happened, so Jeanne continues to endure, bottling her emotions.
Those emotions are going to get out, though. When they do, those dearest to Jeanne Deilman of 23 Commerce Wharf, post code 1080, Brussels, will pay dearly.
At times, I appreciated this film because of the innovative ways in which it communicated its ideas to the audience. The completely static camera, for instance, both highlighted the vouyeristic nature of film and underscored the blandness of Jeanne’s life. The film’s meticulous documentation of Ms. Deilman’s routine also trained the audience to appreciate the work that she puts into supporting her son, only for both she and us to be quietly wounded when he takes her hard work for granted.
Such detail also alerts the audience to the most minute of differences–we instantly know something horrible has happened to Jeanne when her second client leaves. We also feel, through Delphine Seyrig’s sublime performance, that she vainly tries to push the events to the back of her mind–one particularly effective scene involves Jeanne feebly adding sugar cubes to her coffee in order to erase the bitterness.
Perhaps most creatively, Jeanne Deilman, 23 quay du Commerce, 1080 Bruxxeles purposefully imparts tedium onto its audience. As the film’s fingers knead boredom into our brains, flattening and smoothing their folds, we realize that we are experiencing and enduring Jeanne’s own depressive outlook! How creative!
As an artistic experiment, those points are valid and make the film worth discussing in an academic forum… but this film is now “The Greatest Film of All Time” in a prestigious, public platform! REALLY? The GREATEST thing a film can do is PURPOSELY BORE ITS AUDIENCE?!
Again, while I did not enjoy this movie, I think that it’s well-made and has merit, but this ranking from Sight & Sound goes beyond challenging and into impenetrable ego stroking.
Absolutely not. This film is like watching paint dry, then watching someone get murdered, then watching the victim’s blood dry on top of the paint.
There is a type of filmgoer that appreciates extreme attention to naturalistic detail, an audience member that bemoans the lack of “um’s” and “uh’s” in a protagonist’s daily speech, that wonders when characters like Jack Bauer from 24 take bathroom breaks, that wishes CBS legal procedurals would dramatize each billable hour of a fictional prosecutor’s paperwork. For 206 minutes, this type of viewer will revel in the painstaking attention drawn to Jeanne Deilman’s dish washing or hair brushing. For everyone else, including viewers who only thought they belonged to the group I’ve just mentioned, this film will be torturously boring, surprisingly meditative, then primally infuriating.
If you need intense feminist cinema in your life, Tangerine is only 90 minutes.