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DIRECTED BY: Chantal Akerman
FEATURING: Delphine Seyrig
PLOT: A widow performs chores around her apartment and prostitutes herself in the afternoons.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its belabored 3+ hours (!) of a woman doing dull daily chores in long static real time takes, Jeanne Dielman is an example of how a movie can essentially swallow its own tail, achieving a level of surreality by emphasizing ordinariness and normality to an absurd degree. Like Andy Warhol’s “Sleep,” this deliberate experiment in extended boredom serves a purpose in the film universe; it’s just that that purpose isn’t to be watched by a normal human audience.
COMMENTS: When I read critics rave about Jeanne Dielman, I sometimes feel like I’m scanning reviews from the Bizarro World Times, dispatches from an alternate universe where up is down and audiences are enthralled by watching women shop for buttons and cook meatloaf for hours on end. (Vincent Canby’s claim that the frumped-up Delphine Seyrig “has never looked more beautiful” than in this film doesn’t help counter that impression that every review of the film was written on Opposite Day). It’s not that Akerman’s movie is a fraud or a failure. According to its experimental goal of exploring mundanity to its absolute limit, it’s a success, one that, for obvious reasons, other directors have rarely sought to repeat. But Jeanne Dielman is a formal exercise that no one other than a theoretician could love: we can’t bond with its affectless characters, its punishing three hour running time is a blunt weapon used to hammer home its hopeless message, and frankly, it’s just no fun. Watching this movie isn’t just taking your cultural vegetables, it’s gagging down a spoonful of cultural castor oil. Jeane Dielman‘s high artistic intent and ridiculous integrity of vision are too powerful to give the film a “beware” rating, but this is a movie that’s better read about than watched; heck, even Mlle. Dielman’s son would rather read than act in the movie. On its release the movie was adopted by feminists as a landmark statement on the crushing boredom of “women’s work,” but it’s not (and Akerman herself never claimed it was). That interpretation would require that the men and the working women in the movie—the son, the postal clerk, the waitress—were depicted as living lives of glamor compared to housefrau Jeanne. Rather, the film paints the entire adult world (or at least the “bourgeois” world) as morbidly dull: the only human beings shown enjoying any aspect of life in the film are children briefly seen running and playing in the street. The universal and almost unqualified praise for Akerman’s avant-garde oddity—which bludgeons the concept of “entertainment” with the same subtlety and affection as John Waters did for the concept of “taste” in Pink Flamingos—seems like it might make a great case study for a 20th century edition of “Extraordinary Aesthetic Delusions and the Madness of Critics.” For those who crave such things, a similar modern ennuiscape was sketched earlier, but with greater economy and magic, by Marco Ferreri in Dillinger is Dead.
After the marketing success of a line of toys based on Star Wars characters, figurines based on popular movies became huge sellers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Obviously not every toy company could afford to license a top-of-the-line property like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles posable action figure was almost certainly the most ill-advised attempt to cash in on the fad. I can still hear the radio spots created to coincide with the movie’s 1983 U.S. release: “Your Jeanne Dielman action figure makes coffee, entertains ‘gentleman callers,’ eats in stony silence, or just sits and stares at the wall, just like international screen icon Delphine Seyrig! For extra authenticity, the molded plastic face is incapable of expression. WARNING: to avoid risk of catatonia, toy should not be played with for more than three hours at a setting. Potato peeler and scissors sold separately.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Miss Seyrig has participated in a number of supposedly experimental films over the years, but in none as original and ambitious as this. ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is not quite like any other film you’ve ever seen…”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (1983 U.S. theatrical release)