Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they spend a few days with Chantal Akerman’s delightfully uptight Jeanne Dielman at her home at 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
In the #36 (tied) movie on the list, a woman of incredible order provides for her son by sleeping with men for money, maintaining a spotless home and cooking hearty meals day in and day out. When she ruins dinner one night, it destroys the comfort of her routine.
But why is it one of the best movies of all time?
Landon: So throughout this list (but especially in our last few entries) we’ve had a lot of long films that have, to varying effects, done things with time. Whether recreating 15th century Russia in Andrei Rublev or following a group’s exit from a community farm in Satantango or telling an epic yet deliberately incomplete story of the Holocaust in Shoah, so many of these films stretch and manipulate time to varying ends. How would you describe what Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles does with time compared to other things we’ve seen?
(I’m never not going to say the complete title in this conversation, by the way.)
Scott: I’ll look forward to you committing to that, and t’s funny, but the title is a nice place to start when it comes to subverting cinematic expectations. It’s a long, dull name that gives us information we don’t really need. As for time itself, the movie does an outstanding job of making the day feel long yet full in direct relation to the thankless job of maintenance the woman living at 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles repetitively tends to.
My theory is that the slow elements, the mundane to-do list nature of it all, floats on because we’re shown upfront that she’s earning her money through prostitution. There’s a kernel of intrigue buried beneath the routine – that’s also part of the routine – that keeps the dramatic possibilities open.
Landon: Yeah, it’s also interesting looking back at the film as a whole knowing that it opens with Jeanne seeing a john. We only see the beginning and the end of the encounter through the hallway. Nothing about it is eroticized. Yet it’s the first aspect of this otherwise mundane routine we see, and that part of the routine is mundane as well. I could be mistaken, but these are also the only moments in the film (until the end) that Jeanne enters a room and we don’t enter with her.
Scott: Oh, wow. You’re right. And we enter into a lot of rooms with her.
Did you get the impression through the first day that she had life figured out? Or that she was maybe happy?
Landon: That’s one thing that has always confounded me a bit with this film, that we see her during the time in which this carefully constructed and exhaustively executed domestic routine (or even prison) breaks down. I still can’t tell if the breakdown was a sudden realization or something that had been long-gestating. Or perhaps the murder at the end of the film was something purely spur-of-the-moment. In a film that eschews narrative storytelling this radically, and is so cyclical with its structure, does the 2nd day really have any direct bearing on the 3rd?
That’s my long-winded way of saying I have no fucking clue.
Scott: That’s the power at work here. I found myself completely upended when it came to a moral compass, specifically because Jeanne is so put together and precise.
There’s a scene where an unseen woman is at the door, talking about how she didn’t know what to make for dinner, and my gut response was that she was horrible. How could she not know what to buy at the butcher’s! Then I questioned why I judged her that harshly.
The same thing happened with the potatoes. Jeanne is a prostitute? No biggie. She overcooks the potatoes? Holy hell, she’s the devil.
Landon: There is a certain magnetism to Jeanne’s impeccably executed work on the first day that sets unattainable expectations of domestic perfection for the following days. The rather subtle ways that the routine breaks down are pretty incredible, too. I find that after a while it’s easy to get lost in Jeanne’s schedule, to watch her take these tasks to completion. Then when something is slightly out of order, it almost makes you gasp.
Scott: That full immersion in her world speaks to the feeling of time, too.
Landon: Yes, it really is easily the most immersive portrayals of domestic wok. You mentioned subverting expectations, which is a phrase we tend to talk about a lot with unconventional films, but there really is no film like Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in that respect. The fact that this seems such a radical break from conventional filmmaking highlights the incredible gap between traditional film structures and the medium’s capacity to represent the everyday lives of ordinary people. It subverts expectations precisely by exploring what’s familiar.
Scott: But that’s an insanely difficult task to get right. Imagine the same movie without the prostitution angle – which frankly plays a small part in her day – or the result of the breakdown. I’d argue that version would leave us twiddling our thumbs wondering why we care about this woman’s errands enough to watch them in a movie.
Landon: Interesting point, especially because I’d imagine that it’s not the prostitution scenes (or even the ending) that many people come away from this film with, but the overall sense of routine that seems so antithetical to traditional filmmaking.
We could think about it the other way: If this is a truly feminist film – as in a film that declares a defiant “no” to male-defined storytelling in favor of representing a type of work that goes largely unacknowledged – then why not only a film about a woman’s work? While I think the ending of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is fitting and the breakdown fascinating, it’s always activities like peeling potatoes that I think of when I reflect on this film.
Scott: I’ve never wanted someone to own a potato peeler more.
Landon: I’ve realized that my favorite line of dialogue comes early on from Jeanne in response to her son’s assertion that he’d only marry someone he’d make love to if he were a woman. She says “But how would you know? You are not a woman.”
This, to me, summarizes what the film is saying to its audience.
Scott: It’s the Trojan Horse. The spoonful of sugar. We need the intrigue of the prostitution to pull our attention, and that’s okay. It’s a common tool of subversive work. Plus, Akerman herself said that the sex-for-money was only a metaphor anyway, and she uses it like a maestro.
Landon: She does, and the prostitution angle only makes it all the more apparent throughout that this is a film about patriarchy without a patriarch.
Scott: Although there’s probably a companion movie out there waiting to be made about that third john’s boring last three days before his shocking end.
Landon: Ha! That’s amazing.
So I assume, as a resident of Western Europe, that you’re now going to go on the Jeanne Dielman Google map tour.
Scott: Yup. I looked up the address. It actually looks like a pleasant place. As it did back then. Not sure where that neon sign was coming from, though.
Landon: That is the real eternal question about this film. I’m guessing the subtle long-term nausea it caused had some bearing on the 2nd half.
Scott: Imagine that after years and years and years.
Landon: And what’d you think of Delphine Seyrig’s performance?
Scott: Well, she’s great isn’t she? Somehow sunken into a character that’s revealed to be tragically high strung, she’s a total natural.
Landon: Yes, I was shocked when I realized she was this French movie star I had seen in other films. Talk about a dedicated performance.
She’s also never given a close-up. So few actors are asked to perform completely in medium or long shots. It’s an incredible performance, but one that’s as thankless and unassuming as Jeanne herself.
Scott: And for me, that was the ultimate lesson of the movie – a celebration of the invisible but necessary job of maintenance. Jeanne isn’t doing it as pretense (she doesn’t have house parties or anything), she’s doing it because that’s what you do to avoid living in squalor and starving. Simple, but the alternative is terrifying.
Landon: I’m glad we talked about the film when we did. Before I watched it, I had spent the whole day cutting and pre-cooking vegetables for Thanksgiving. It was exhausting, but I enjoy cooking as a hobby. But that’s because it’s a hobby. It took the film one visceral step further as a reminder that Jeanne doesn’t have a choice but to cook those potatoes right.
Scott: Well, to cook them. But she obviously needed to cut herself some slack. Over-cooked potatoes become mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and milk. Calm down, Jeanne.
On that note, can I make three strange correlations to other movies?
Landon: If you don’t overcook them.
Scott: I’ll try not to, but if I do, I’ll stab a guy with a creepy mustache.
- Pleasantville – another movie where a woman’s orgasm causes a great change, and an excellent look at household duties as prison/life-giving
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi – another movie about perfection and trying to attain it, although the main character here doesn’t stumble on a pebble and slam his face into the ground.
- Falling Down – a male-focused version of this with more violence?
See? I undercooked them plenty.
Landon: Falling Down is a great comparison/contrast, especially because its more extreme violence comes from the protagonist’s sense of entitlement. It’s the inverse of this film, taking the breakdown onto the public world instead of the domestic space at 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. And damn it, I still need to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Scott: Yes, you do.
Landon: All Is Lost came to mind while watching the film. Robert Redford silently approaches fixing his boat and saving his life as “man’s work.” He has such subtle expressions on his face and reserves a breakdown for one brief moment. Could make a good pairing with this film for a double feature on gendered existential dread.
In other words, Wednesday night at my house.
Scott: I also thought it would make an excellent double feature with just about any French movie where rich people complain about being bored all the time.
Landon: The real boredom is happening in Belgium.
Scott: Haha. It’s a beautiful place that felt strangely empty when she walked its streets.
But, yeah, so I was interested to learn that Akerman decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Pierrot le Fou.
Landon: Why did the Godard connection strike you?
Scott: I think because there were a lot of filmmakers that came out of the New Wave trying to be subversive, but ultimately falling into a pattern. Here, we have a film that doesn’t necessarily have the same trapping of what we stereotype as New Wave, but the director seems like she’s truly carrying its torch.
Landon: I think you’re on the mark. I think it took somebody who could really see films and filmmaking a different way (i.e., a woman, somebody usually excluded from filmmaking) to actually show what a subversive cinema can and should be. There’s something inherently limiting about what a group of self-satisfied male intellectuals like the New Wave can actually accomplish. And Akerman did so by simply showing us something that was right in front of us the whole time. For some truly subversive filmmaking, you don’t have to look much further than everyday life.
I haven’t seen any of Akerman’s other films, but I’m now making it a priority to do so.
Scott: Do you think it could easily be remade today? Or – better yet – do you think that it could originate today?
Even though the film is politically a product of 2nd wave feminism, in cinematic terms, I think we need a film like this today more than ever. You talk about how difficult it is to film the ordinary cinematically, and you’re exactly right. Akerman’s impeccable sense of framing goes a long way in making the film a true work of art, and it’s so hard for us to look at the subtle details of the frame with today’s impatient cinema. But even if this or a film like it were made today, I’m not sure if it would travel or see the light of day.
Scott: If it were released today, it might be even more startling because it could show us how far we haven’t come from the 1950s view on a woman’s role. Or we’d all laugh at Jeanne for caring that much how good her stew is.
Landon: Yeah, even during the time of its making (Akerman was only 25, making this her Citizen Kane), she thought about it as bringing her mother to screen, so there was a palpable generational disparity even then.
This film is definitely a product of its time, and that’s what makes it important to see today. It should be required viewing after watching Spring Breakers.
Scott: Ha! Spring Breakers: 30 Years Later.
What we never knew is that Jeanne has a lower back tattoo of Hello Kitty riding a dragon.
Landon: Spring Potatoes Forever.
This is, sadly, the only film in the Top 50 directed by a woman, but it also makes sense that it’s this film that made it to the Top 50, that this is the film that represents certain distinct possibilities in women’s filmmaking.
Scott: Namely, doing slow cinema better than most of the dudes out there.
Landon: Cool story, bro.
Next Time: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita