Friday, November 14, 2008

In Depth Review: Jeanne Dielman

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)

For the sake of simplicity the film will be referred to as JD for the review.

was written, directed and starred (although ‘starred’ by be stretching the term) Jeanne Dielman. It is a 3 hour and 13 minute long exercise which showcases three days in the life of the title character, Jeanne Dielman, as she works her way through the necessary chores that ensure an efficient, clean, and respectable household. These would include cooking, cleaning, shoe shining, purchasing goods at local shops and so on. Thankfully for our dear Mrs. Dielman, she does provide herself the time to rest a café. The house is not her only raison d’être. She has a son, Sylvain, played by Jan Decorte, who benefits from her devout maid work. There’s food on the plate in the morning and in the evening, the house is always clean as are his clothes. They don’t speak much however. When they do, the conversation come off as awkward, uncomfortable and even trivial. There is one moment during which Sylvain does mention something of interest (how a friend of his explained what sexual intercourse was when they were kids). Jeanne’s reaction is weak, she brushes it off. It seems as though she’s good at serving her son, not so much at just being a mother, emotionally speaking. So be it. She is his mother and he is her son and nothing will change that.

Oh, did I forget to mention that her idea of earning income consists of whoring herself out? Every day in the afternoon while her son is away at school a different middle aged man comes to the apartment to for some poontang, for a price of course.

The filming style, from a visual standpoint, is simple, to say the least. There are cuts (thank god), but the camera never moves during a scene. It is placed in a specific spot for every room in the apartment. Every time a scene returns to a room the viewer has already seen, the camera is back at that same spot. Director Akerman thus gives the viewer a very specific glimpse into each individual room. There are two elements to this. First, the director is dictating what we can and cannot see, like a painting. You can set your eyes in front of a painting and look at its margins, but you won’t see anything beyond the frame. Such is the case here. Secondly, this technique provides, in a strange way, a sense of familiarity for each room. By the second day, the viewer knows exactly where he is with every cut. Another effect of the still camera would be how characters can walk in and out of every frame. Again, this goes back to the director’s desire to show us only what she wants us to see.

A peculiar element that I noticed is that in almost every frame, with some exceptions, there is something or someone sitting or standing perfectly in the middle of the frame. When I say the middle, I am not referring to the horizontal frames, but rather that the character or object is sitting at equidistance from the vertical frames. When Dielman is the focus of the shot, there is often something strangely lonely about it all. Space therefore has a storytelling purpose when one takes this into account. The composition of these shots is manipulative in that sense. It looks like there’s nothing going on, but the viewer can deduce quite a bit. There is an interesting moment during which Jeanne and Sylvain are at the table eating supper. Sylvain gets up and goes to the couch just a few feet away. There is a cut, and the new shot has Jeanne still sitting at the table on the far right side of the frame and Sylvain on the couch on the far left side of the frame. There is a lot of physical space between the two. Could that also be the empty space between them as mother and son?

Things really get crazy on the third day. We’ve seen Jeanne perform her tasks with great efficiency for two days already. She was almost like a robot. She knew exactly what was required of her and executed each task diligently. However, on the third day, there are some slip ups. She forgets to turn on a light, she drops a knife, and drops her shoe shiner brush. At the café, someone is already sitting at her favourite spot (which of course is in the middle of the frame), and this flusters her to a certain extent. She doesn’t touch her coffee. There are a host of other little detailed missteps that happen on this third day. She doesn’t even seem as content with herself today. She looks positively bored. Something is clearly amiss. The movie comes to a close at the end of the third day with an unexpected turn of events. There was something deeply troubling her all along, and she unleashes her frustrations in a…questionable way.

I can hear your questions loud and clear (I’m going to pretend your asking questions even if you aren’t): why on earth would such a project to be made? What interest is there in watching such a film? Why is the title so long? Okay, I don’t care about that last question, but the first two are perfectly valid. What’s the point?

Well, from the perspective of someone who has decidedly more mainstream tastes, I believe that the point is whatever you think it is. It is an exposé about the mundane. It is about a housewife’s constant loneliness. It is about a mother and a son’s inability to find a meaningful connection between each other. It’s about minimalist filmmaking. It’s about shot composition. Etc, etc. Pick one. Pick two, three. Better still, watch the movie and discover something that I may have overlooked. I am of the belief that everyone’s reaction to the film can different. What I discovered may not be what, say, sdedalus may discover, or what faceboy has already discovered. JD can be personal for everyone.

I don’t know what art house cinema is. I’ve never taken a film course in my life and thus am in no position to pretend I know what I’m talking about. But I allow myself to suspect that this is art house cinema. No score, little dialogue, a completely different story telling method (yes, I do think one can argue that there is a story), and a host of other characteristics make this a movie far removed from mainstream tastes. I won’t recommend the film. I think that based on my analysis, as amateurish as it may be, is sufficient for all of you to know decide whether this movies needs to be seen or not. This viewer found pleasure in it, but you have been warned.

Do you like house cleaning?

1 comment:

face said...

Well I have no idea who "Chantal Dielman" is in the first paragraph, and am dismayed that you gave no credit to Delphine Seyrig, I do think your reading is valid. I think the important thing about the film is they way it plays with the form both physically and narratively and I think you've expressed a similar experience. However, did you like it?