Sole Criterion: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
By Brett Ballard-Beach
February 2, 2012
DVD Spine # 484
For the life of me, I could not tell you when I first heard about this week’s Sole Criterion pick. It’s an embarrassing admission to have to make, especially for a film that up until a few years ago, when it was released on DVD through the Criterion Collection, was still incredibly hard to see on screens big or small, and particularly here in the United States, where the venues for foreign films decrease in number every year. I don’t think Leonard Maltin ever mentioned it in his TV and Movie Guide (back when it was called that). Perhaps Ebert made an offhand reference to it in a column of his once, but I don’t think he ever reviewed it, it hasn’t made his list of Great Movies, and doing a word search for it on his website (not comprehensive, I know), I find no mention of it.
It was, for me, a great white whale of cinema that I was finally able to encounter during my two years at NYU, on a Saturday morning, by myself (or nearly) for the duration of its 201 minutes. I “knew” the plot, knew the bandied-about cliché that it’s a film where “nothing happens," where the camera remains fixed for repeated long stretches of time (five to eight minutes generally). What I wasn’t prepared for was how built on contradictions it is, in so many ways large and small, the most basic of which is this: it is a film where the plot is so straightforward it could be summed up in a matter of sentences, but the main character remains so invigoratingly (and frustratingly) opaque that you could debate for days afterwards what it all “means."
Since that first time, I have seen it on 35mm at the private college in Portland where I worked from 2008-2010, was denied a chance to see it a third time at another college-run cinema when their 35mm projector broke the day before the print arrived, and viewed it on DVD three times, once with a friend who had listened to me expound upon it for over a decade and was grateful for the opportunity to get me to shut up about how she needed to experience it.
My list of my five favorite films includes a pair of grand epics by master directors: Stanley Kubrick’s costume drama Barry Lyndon, running 184 minutes, Sergio Leone’s gangster tragedy Once Upon a Time in America, sprawling 230 minutes in its “full-length” European version, two considerably shorter comedies that I have written about for Chapter Two - Richard Linklater’s elegiac Before Sunset and David R. Ellis’ splatstick tragicomedy Final Destination 2, running 80 minutes and 91 minutes respectively - and today's film, Chantal Akerman’s 1975 fictional epic of domesticity and inner space, made when she was only 25: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
The title is an address, a statement of fact, a fixed reference point, a jumping-off point, and in a film where every little detail of character and motivation seems up for grabs, it may be the only concrete assertion of which to be certain. Akerman’s camera follows the title character, a single mother, over a 48-hour period spread out over three midweek days (a Tuesday evening, all of Wednesday, and a Thursday morning and afternoon). She cleans, prepares meals, runs errands, watches a neighbor’s infant, dotes on her son, and for an hour each day, takes a gentleman caller into her bedroom in exchange for money. (I choose my words carefully because the film does not document what happens during the first two of the three interactions. We are left to imagine precisely what occurs).