Around the World in 50 Films: #4 Belgium – Jeanne Dielman

‘Those with patience and an appreciation of the art will be rewarded with a cinematic experience like few others.’

 

Why I chose this: I am a huge fan of a number of directors who have been clumped under the so-called Contemporary Contemplative Cinema aesthetic. Chantal Akerman falls under the same banner, but is a director who’s works I am unfamiliar with. I put off watching Jeanne Dielman due to its length and reputation, but felt that the empty Belgium review was calling for it.

I like to think when I’m watching films. If I’m not thinking, I often grow bored and fidgety. Films can generally get away with not making me think if they have a particularly excellent atmosphere, but generally I like them to present an interesting matter, explore it and move at a pace slow enough for me to digest the content and mull over it. It is for this reason that where many would see Jeanne Dielman as the most boring, pretentious “film” they know of (perhaps rivalled only by Sátántangó), I see it as a beautiful, hypnotic and cerebral work of art.

Coming in at a whopping 3 1/2 hours, Jeanne Dielman is as heavy on your schedule as it is light on plot. The hours we witness map over three days in the titular character’s boring, sterile life as she washes dishes, polishes shoes, makes dinner and turns the odd trick to bring in some money. Most of these events play out in real-time, shot with a static camera, and are repeated with slight variation over the diegetic days. Viewers who aren’t used to the glacial, contemplative style of film-makers such as Tarr, Sokurov and Weerasethakul will most likely feel bored, frustrated and alienated by the pace and ultra-subtle thematic explorations, but those with patience and an appreciation of the art will be rewarded with a cinematic experience like few others.

There is a very good reason for the painful presentation of the content. The normality of the tasks which Jeanne executes coupled with the pace heightens the viewer’s awareness to the small details of her life and the small variations over the days. Where someone forgetting to turn on a light in the hallway wouldn’t even register to the audience in most films, here it is a huge red warning light of things to come.

Akerman’s main aim is to depict the unrelenting tedium which many women become trapped in (or did in 1975). It is not only Jeanne who is a victim of this; the old woman in the post office and cashier in the shop where replacement potatoes are bought both seem to be in the same near-comatose state. It is suggested that decisions for these women are largely made by other more vital people, most obviously in the butcher-shop conversation and Jeanne’s meatloaf. Although viewers may disagree with either the content or the way in which Jeanne deals with it, the way Akerman puts across her message is still impressive.

Delphine Seyrig is wonderful as always and a rather interesting choice. On one level, Seyrig has always been a women’s rights activist, so it is both ironic and fitting that she plays the role of Jeanne. On another, this woman who has been described as the thinking-man’s sex symbol is reduced to the most painfully normal woman possible. Also interesting to note (or at least it was when I was on a particularly abstract thought train during the film) is the difference in the treatment of time between this film, where it is concrete and hyper-real, and some of Seyrig’s other films, such as Last Year at Marienbad and Daughters of Darkness, where it is transparent and out of reach.

Jeanne Dielman is a very esoteric film, but those which can appreciate the deliberate pace and subtle build-up may find a new favourite.


Also recommended from Belgium:
Man Bites Dog
Rosetta

 

Simon Brand

Image credit - tintincai

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