A lonely widowed housewife does her daily chores, takes care of her apartment where she lives with her teenage son, and turns the occasional trick to make ends meet. However, something happens that changes her safe routine.
Jeanne Dielman, a lonely young widow, lives with her son Sylvain following an immutable order: while the boy is in school, she cares for their apartment, does chores, and receives clients in the afternoon.Written by
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Any work of art this preposterously boring can only be considered a failure. Yup, we're going there.
Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is 201 minutes of three days in the life of its titular heroine, played intentionally blank by Delphine Seyrig. That's a run time of about three and a half hours--time Akerman spends following Seyrig's Dielman around doing errands, cooking food, watching a neighbor's baby, sitting around, doing some sex work, and caring for her young adult son. Yeah, sex work is the odd one.
The film deserves credit for depicting her sex work as a clean and unsensationalized expression of self-ownership--until of course it throws that all away in the film's stupid sex-is-death conclusion and squanders the only good will it had earned with me. Dielman's relationship with her son is wrapped up in a lot of dated Freudian BS, and rings utterly hollow to those of us living beyond the 1970s. That leaves a whole lot of boring stuff, and that stuff is a whole lot of boring.
The bulk of this film consists of a static camera watching a woman do housework. It's like the much-lauded maid scene of Umberto D, but stretched across three excruciating hours. This is presumably meant to be oppressive and disturbing, and here Akerman crucially misunderstands the effect of her art on its audience: the only possible spectatorial response, so far as I can tell, is supreme disengagement. Just as I daydream when I do housework, so does my mind wander while watching Jeanne Dielman of 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles cook the potatoes. People retreat to their thoughts when they do this stuff in real life, and they retreat when you faithfully reproduce it on screen. The film can't possibly engage me politically or emotionally as art if I'm spending the entire run time thinking about whether I get paid this Friday and what I'm going to cook for dinner.
The question is, is Akerman aware of the human proclivity toward idle thought during mundane tasks? Because this film is only oppressive and uncomfortable if it's empty, if this woman doesn't dream then this numbing boredom could have something to say. But that doesn't work: we all think all the time, we all daydream. Does Jeanne Dielman of 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles daydream? Presumably so, but the film is so damned externalized that I have no idea what she's thinking. And without her thoughts to guide me through these three and a half irretrievable hours of my one wild and precious life, I'm left with my own.
As such, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles's conclusion is spectacularly unmotivated and completely unearned. The finale is entirely unsupported by its previous action because this was, for me, a film about what type of sandwich I'll eat when I get home and what's going on this weekend. -TK 10/7/10
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