Make way, come the new film canon. I clear the afternoon to be able to carry out the task of giving the new best film in history (according to the survey carried out by Sight & Sound). Remote mobile, appropriate setting so as not to divert my attention from the more than three hours that follow in the wake of ‘the bike thief‘, ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Vertigo’.
So, ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles‘ is presented to me in all its splendor. More than three hours where Chantal Akerman observes the life of a woman, so constant and immutable: errands, housework, eating with your student son or sometimes alone. And, when she shows up at night, she practices prostitution to get the income that is missing after the death of her husband.
The experience is… one of the most passive I’ve ever had watching a movie, if you will. During those three hours you are watching how a still camera captures the invariability of a rather cloistered existence and devoid of much excitement. Collections of very static moments where you must keep your attention on the slight variations that will slowly lead to a more intense “climax” that is inevitable and violent, but always within the parameters set from the beginning.
a different trip
Put like that, it sounds like a boring experience. Conventionally speaking, it can be. ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is not offering a moving exploration of the life of a woman suffocated within four walls (present even when she goes out into the street), nor is it showing you turbulence that removes the experience. She does not do it because it is possible that Akerman in 1975 did not have the means, but also because considers that the story does not require them.
During the journey of ‘Jeanne Dielman’ my brain stays calm. Some will say that I’m asleep, but that’s not the case, because I can’t take my eyes off the images, no matter how immobility may be the greatest challenge to patience. Without really realizing it, Akerman has invited you to stand in the doorway to watch this woman and you’ve ended up in her state of mind. So much monotony is slowly eating away at you and making you impatient.
Its use of images and follow-up of the routine may seem the simplest thing in the world (applicable to any art and essay tape), but the reality is that it works as long as you decide to give it the benefit of the doubt. His stretch of cinematic time is a complete defiance of convention that creates a distinguishable experience and manage to transport you to the perspective of a character without resorting to classic entertainment film dramas.
Isn’t that worthy of celebration from a technical point of view? ‘Citizen Kane’ has been widely celebrated for many reasons, including its revolution of film language while keeping one foot in classicism. It’s not that different in concept from what Akelman does here, even if the execution is radically different. He is opening a door to a different way of telling stories that has taken root in certain branches of independent cinema.
The images are not only inviting you to notice the slight variations that occur in repeated activities, but you can find in them details of other filmmakers you like. His way of exploiting the moments that occur between “dramatic moments” and that a conventional film deliberately omits leads me to the Terrence Malick of the last stage, also interested in building a story through those moments that occur between “the things that happen “.
His way of showing prostitution from a gray prism and lacking in emotion, like signing up in an office but from a more clandestine environment, also brings me to mind’New York Girls‘, a relatively unknown gem of Lizzie Borden about a group of sex workers in a luxury brothel. Like her, she also has the issue of exploitation floating around the freedom they actually possess, especially in a system that does little to protect.
‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’: the other great cinema
All of this, of course, is the motorcycle that I decide to get on while watching the film, which is not exactly what Akerman had in mind since his work precedes everything I have just mentioned. But traveling with a movie means that too, especially in movies like this one that they do not stick to a single interpretation and decide that it is the viewer who decides what he sees transmits to him. Although she may lose it. That doesn’t fit my definition of boredom.
Without a doubt, the directors and critics who have voted for Sight & Sound have cast a very difficult ballot for the film. Because ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is truly a different audiovisual experience worthy of celebration, just like a hard facade against which you can stamp yourself, especially if you expect him to justify his first position from the first minute. He doesn’t, because he never aspired to it.
being fair, no film can survive that scrutiny. For this reason, the best way to approach it is not frontal, it is passive. You have to be willing to be bored to find out that maybe that’s just the feeling you should be feeling. I, in a way, have done it, and that’s why I loved ‘Jeanne Dielman’ and found many things in it. Although I will never like the film as much as the trolling movement that crowns a film like this so that more than one crashes in a spectacular way.