October 23, 2011

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium 1975)

"There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness."Frank Capra

I highly doubt that Frank Capra ever saw Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles". He might not have liked it since it embodies values exactly opposite to the ones his own cinema stood for. Capra's sentimental films usually had a charming male hero, fast-paced scenes with lots of dialogue and a happy ending full of optimism. "Jeanne Dielman" on the other hand has a rather boring female main character, painfully long scenes with almost no dialogue and action and an ending that is anything but optimistic. So Capra is for people who see film as entertainment and whereas Akerman is purely for feminists and serious film fans who dress all in black and loathe capitalism. And even for them, "Jeanne Dielman" may be more a "cultural vegetable" rather than a film they actually enjoy. So that's it, right? Why discuss the matter any further?

Because luckily, things are not that simple. There is no cinema that is, by itself, better than the other. There is only cinema. But there are certainly good and bad directors. Frank Capra and Chantal Akerman are both good directors, albeit for different reasons. It is, in fact, quite possible to appreciate both of them as I myself do. I would even go so far as to call them the "ying and yang of cinema". We are complex human beings and we need them both.

As far as "Jeanne Dielman" is concerned, it is certainly a demanding film - if not a particularly difficult or inaccessible one. Watching the main character, a prostitute working from her own apartment, peeling potatoes and washing up for almost four hours can be nerve-wrecking. But the great thing about the film is that after a while, after you get used to it, you start noticing the small details and the visual delights of the cinematography. Like the recurring symmetrical compositions and the ubiquituous use of the colours brown and green.

Most films shy away from daily routine actions. Even those that apparently aim for realism do not show what people actually do most of  the time. Mundane, ordinary things that are quite boring but nevertheless make out large portions of our lives. "Jeanne Dielman" is a film that dares to focus on these mundane things. The film could indeed be called dull but it needs to be. Dullness is its main point and the reason the provocative ending is so effective.

My viewing advice is: watch it at home and make a short pause after every "day" (the film tells - in full detail - three consecutive days in Jeanne Dielman's life). Do some grunt work in between to get in the mood. And I promise you that you will, by the end of the film, feel what it must be like to actually be the main character. Which is not something that is likely to happen when you're watching a Capra film...

The Vienna Film Festival "Viennale" is currently devoting a retrospective to Chantal Akerman.


"The Housewife": Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman

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