Jeanne Dielman is Your Mother; or, Alex and Aaron Watch a Three-and-a-Half-Hour Movie

Aaron: In an effort to make this blog-reading experience more wonderful for you, dear reader, Alex and I have decided to blog occasionally about older films that we think are relevant or beautiful or terrible.  (You see how I broke down the fourth wall there? Make a note, Alex dear).

To kick this off, we recently watched Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 210-minute film by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman. This is a stunning film from a formal point of view, but the content is also searing in the way it uses feminist and Marxist dialectics, mostly through actions and style more than dialogue.

The film follows three days in the life Jeanne Dielman, a 40-something widow living with her teenage son in a modest flat in Brussels. Through extremely long, static takes (sometimes 10 minutes-long – the length of a mag of film) we see her going about the mundane tasks of her daily life. She wakes up in the morning, boils water, makes coffee, adds milk to it, sits and drinks, wakes up her son, serves him breakfast, sends him off to school, goes grocery shopping, returns home and cleans, and on and on. In the afternoon she sees men, turning tricks in her bedroom to make some extra dough. (This is really just another element of her day and not really a comment on her morality or situation.) In the whole film, there are probably about 15 aggregate minutes of dialogue; most of the film is quiet action with no score.

I was immediately impressed by how despite the lack of significant movement or editing, this is not boring film. You really get involved in her daily life. You get to know her routines and fall into an understanding of her on a deep human level. She’s not really a happy person, probably a bit upset with the lacklusterness of her life, but also not really one to complain about it.

Ackerman shows Jeanne’s discomfort formally, by positioning the camera so her head is out of the frame, say, or things seem different from what they were the day before. At times one of the two chairs in her kitchen table vanishes, suggesting a level of uneasiness that she might feel, that we certainly notice. At other times, we are surprised by a new camera set-up, showing a new angle of a room we’ve seen several times before from another vantage point.

There is a constant question we are faced with: why does Jeanne, the only parent in the house, still perform “woman’s” work (cleaning, cooking, shopping)? There is a constant struggle about her role as a worker in this world, as a single woman and mother.

I’m impressed at how much it seems to have influenced later filmmakers, like Michael Haneke (in La Pianiste), Dusan Makavejev (in Montenegro) and some of the Romanian New Wavers (it’s very reminiscent in style to Police, Adjective and The Death of Mr. Lasarescu).

I’m surprised that it isn’t seen more and studied more as the great film that it is. Why is it not in the pantheon of Great Films? Is it formally or stylistically too austere and cerebral? Is it that it was made by a woman with a largely female production crew? Does the fact that most film viewers don’t know this film (I don’t think Alex or I knew about this before a few weeks ago) underline the very Feminist polemic it’s showing?

(Also, I should say that the fact that Ackerman made this when she was only 25 years-old makes me look hard at the mediocrity of my own life’s work. I could deal with Welles being better than I am, but now Ackerman too. When do I see my shrink again? Shit.)

Alex: Oh, Aaron, you’re so Brechtian. I think your directly addressing our legion of readers, breaking the illusion of the blog, forces them to examine their own bourgeois morality and political complacency. We’re so provocative.

But actually my mockery of you provides a useful way into Jeanne Dielman, a movie which actually does have the power to make its viewers both medium-aware and self-aware.

My guess is that Ackerman’s films have been firmly set outside the mainstream because they are, a) feminist works (always threatening to the filmmaking establishment, however “independent” any part of it might be), and b) “experimental.” I put that word in quotation marks because nothing strikes me as particularly experimental about Jeanne Dielman, but surely lots of viewers and critics have seen it that way — only because it’s different.

You describe the film and its virtues excellently. You and I had a little fun at its expense while we watched it, like when you went into my kitchen to refill your coffee cup and called out, “Am I missing anything?” (My rejoinder: “The car chase.”) But even so, I think we both gasped, or said “Whoa,” when the film cut to an angle in Jeanne’s kitchen we hadn’t seen before, a testament to the spell it cast on us.

As I watched the film I found myself thinking that it was the sort of thing that, from the advent of narrative cinema, had been waiting to be made. It’s one of those great works of art that is (or seems) so pure and simple it makes you go, Why didn’t anyone think to do this before?

The irony for me was that I’d spent my previous evening watching another 3.5-hour movie, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (which I found glorious and frustrating and everything in between), which could not have been a more different 3.5-hour experience. That epic film echoed in my mind and served to underline the minimalism of Jeanne Dielman. (It doesn’t get more maximalist than Heaven’s Gate.) Jeanne Dielman makes Harold Pinter plays look loquacious. It’s an unbelievably confident work from such a young filmmaker. You and I have more of Ackerman’s films in our respective Netflix queues, and I know we’re looking forward to seeing more of her work.

Aaron: Alex, this is a Brechtian blogger telling you to fuck off.

I think you’re right on the money speaking of minimalism. It sorta makes every other movie I’ve seen in a long time seem showy and overindulgent. Even the (long) title is minimalist – more so than if it was simply called Jeanne Dielman. She’s not really a woman, but just a person in at an address. She exists in a place, but sorta doesn’t exist as a person in the outside world. This is a feminist thing too.

And you’re also right that it’s totally experimental. It’s approachable, but it’s not standard in Hollywood or Europe… a fascinating work of art.

Alex: When I think of “experimental” film I tend to think of non-narrative film, like Koyaanisqatsi or Decasia or some of those Guy Maddin movies. Jeanne Dielman may not exactly be a potboiler, but it’s got identifiable characters, a sequence of events, something like a plot. To me it’s just a movie like any other narrative movie, and I don’t see it as radical in form — just as I don’t see its politics as especially radical. But that’s only because, I suppose, my own politics are in line with Ackerman’s. So nothing feels bizarre or unfamiliar to me. Like I said above, this movie just makes sense to my aesthetic experience. (A new term: politico-aestheticism? Polaesthetics?) Radicals recognize in other radicals friends (comrades?) and total rationality and reasonableness. (It’s why you and I get along so well.)

 Aaron: Fair enough – it’s not totally experimental, but it has lots of “art film” elements to it (the use of full film mags, for instance, as well as the static shots and the idea that shit isn’t exactly as you see it). I believe Ackerman worked at the Anthology Film Archives in the early ’70s before making this movie, so she clearly would have seen the experimental work of New York School and Minimalist filmmakers like Warhol, Frampton, Andre, Snow and Cage – to say nothing of Mekas who she probably worked with – and others who were working at that time outside of New York like Brakhage. Her style is clearly more influenced by them than by Renoir or Godard (though I think the New Wave was important to her).

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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