By Marc S. Sanders
You ever see a movie that feels like utter torture while watching it, and then when you have time to reflect on it later, you at least appreciate the message it delivered? I guess this can apply to my experience with Sight & Sound’s recent selection of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles as the greatest film of all time; number one on their list of the best 100 films of all time. This picture usurped other achievements like Citizen Kane (number one for close to five decades) and Vertigo (which held the top spot since 2012).
Chantal Ackerman directed this feminist film in 1975, produced in Belgium, about a widow named Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) who lives a very mundane life. The running time of 3 hours and 21 minutes positions a still camera depicting her everyday activity over three ordinary days. We see Jeanne boil potatoes, prepare soup, and escort gentlemen callers behind her closed bedroom door. One man per afternoon. In the evening, her non talkative adult son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) arrives home and she serves him soup and dinner. The viewer watches them eat their whole meal with Jeanne barely able to hold conversation with her son who remains mostly unresponsive. After dinner, the sofa in the living room is unfolded into a cot for Sylvain to prepare for bed. The following morning, Jeanne takes time to fold her son’s pajamas and shine his shoes. Jeanne will then run errands like seeking out a particular color of yarn for sowing, or a button to replace on her coat. She also waits for a colleague (maybe another woman in her line of work) to drop off her baby to be watched for a short period of time, before Jeanne’s next afternoon appointment with another gentleman. After the appointment, she will fold up the little towel in the center of the bed for where her customer positioned himself.
This is a very tedious film to watch with little dialogue that is delivered in French with subtitles. There is insight to be gained however, and as I reflect on the film, it mostly comes through in the deliberately long running time. I believe Ackerman was attempting to make a viewer’s experience with the piece feel as lonely and mundane as the main character. There are very few cuts in the film. Often, for long periods of times, maybe as long as four or five minutes, we are watching Jeanne sit in a chair staring into space. We will watch her walk down her hallway or across the street to the post office. We will watch her button every button on her coat or house robe. We observe her take a routine bath. We see her peel potatoes. We watch her enter the kitchen to find a utensil and then leave while turning off the light. She’ll then return to the kitchen for something and turn the light back on. Near the end of the film, she receives a package and has trouble with a knot while undoing it. After nearly three hours of this routine kind of activity, I knew she would leave the room, walk down the hall, enter the kitchen, pull open a drawer and look for a pair of scissors. There is nothing special in any of this, but it remains in the final print to be witnessed. Nothing you see in this film is enhanced with stimulating devices like dialogue, music cues, lighting effects, close ups or strategic editing. Even the title of the film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is very, very boring and ordinary. We are simply watching how a lonely widow lives from day one to day two and on to day three.
I am one of four members of a movie watching group of friends who get together (hopefully once a month, if our schedules allow it) to watch three movies on a Saturday or Sunday. One member selected this film out of curiosity with Sight & Sound’s notable recognition of late. (We also watched Shane Black’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang and Doug Liman’s Go.) While we are watching these selected movies, we respond like any audience member should to a film. We’ll laugh or scream. We’ll comment in moments that seem appropriate and keep the mood lively. Much commentary was tossed around among the four of us while watching Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. At times we sounded like locker room boys. On multiple occasions I told my good friend Anthony how much I hate him for selecting this slog of a picture to watch. We even started to look for symbolism or inconsistencies in the film. On several occasions, we see Jeanne enter the kitchen and there is only one chair positioned at the table. She walks out of the room and when she returns there will be two chairs, only we never saw her or Sylvain bring in a second chair. What could that mean? Is this film suddenly going to reveal itself with a supernatural characteristic? Could there be someone else in the house? Will Sylvain and Jeanne have dinner at the kitchen table tonight, instead of in the dining room. Is there something symbolic about this disappearing and reappearing kitchen chair? I’ll save you the trouble, Reader. It means nothing. I could only draw that it is an error in editing or continuity. Yet, that is where our minds would go to, as we absorbed these long moments of ordinary life. Blame us for yearning for the quick fix that most movies offer. We are simply weak, very weak, men.
Bear with me as I tell you that to watch Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is sheer torture. To listen to a faucet drip into an empty tin pan or watch a strand of grass grow in real time is at least as entertaining. Movies serve to make us laugh or cry or scream in fear and heighten our suspense. Movies serve messages that we choose to agree or disagree with. Movies teach us about a kind of person or industry we may never come across and movies allow us into the mind of an artist’s own imagination. Movies can disgust us. Movies can anger us, and movies are also there to frustrate us, like Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
To think back on this film, I’m taken with Jeanne, the character, and what she ultimately does before the film concludes. I’d never spoil the movie’s ending. However, it stands as the most memorable moment in the picture. It’s a scene I won’t forget and it certainly is the most eye opening. Most importantly, it’s understandable having lived as a witness to Jeanne’s seemingly worthless and boring lifestyle. We’ve all endured boredom. I’d argue at times we’ve all felt a lack of worth to ourselves and those around us. I certainly have questioned my value on this earth more times than once. Therefore, to really feel how hollow Jeanne is with whom she caters to each day, like an unresponsive son or gentlemen callers that lack loving affection while they pay for a quick tryst, a viewer must endure the long running time of the film. It’s the most assured way to embrace the authenticity of Jeanne’s empty livelihood. The most important element to Chantal Ackerman’s film is likely the running time. How else to truly understand how mundane a lonely widow is than to live through a near full three days with her? Therefore, Ackerman is successful in getting across what she wanted to with her film.
Credit should be recognized for the actress Delphine Seyrig. To simply sit in a chair staring into space with a camera (likely positioned on a tripod) at the other end of the room and not break character for long periods of time requires extreme concentration and endurance. To share a scene with another actor that does not respond to anything you are doing, is equally challenging. Seyrig is a professional actress, whose career I’m not familiar with. She has likely portrayed more stimulating characters with more hyperactivity in other pieces of work. To bring a performance down to a level of this most extreme kind of monotony is certainly dexterous while requiring complete focus.
I’ll likely never watch Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ever again. I don’t need to. I won’t gain anything new on a second or third viewing. I won’t ever forget the film, however. It stands apart from most other films I have watched because the construction of the piece is intentionally unexciting and the performances are deliberately ho hum. There are people who live completely uninteresting lives, and it is certainly sad to acknowledge that. Movies will tell me that a deranged man will kill people. They will also tell me that heroes go searching for treasure or that employees have a desire to exact revenge on their boss. Movies will demonstrate how families will love each other or how two people fall in or out of love. Movies will also explain how sorrowful it is for a person to experience loss. Movies will also tell me that people live within a mind that offers no self-worth while their heart beats and beats from one mundane and ordinary day to another. The best example of that is Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. An admirable accomplishment for a film dependent on the study of a woman’s sheer emptiness.