A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

This is a great film experiment (which is not at all the same thing as an experimental film). Akerman tests the medium to see whether a story can be told without melodrama, without the usual editing cuts that shift point of view within dialogue, without excess camera movement, without a music soundtrack, without all the cinematic techniques that we have grown to rely upon. She also tests the audience, to see if they will sit through a 201-minute film in which minutes go by without anything more interesting happening than a woman taking a bath, washing the bathtub, preparing dinner, eating it with her son, washing dishes, peeling potatoes, and so on -- all in long takes with no cuts and no apparent forward narrative drive. The answer as far as the medium is concerned is an emphatic yes. As for the audience, that's a difficult question to answer. This member of the audience found it fascinating, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't have a high tolerance for cinematic riddles, or who can't sit raptly looking at a painting in a museum for minutes on end -- for this is a film that draws on visual patience in the way that great works of painting do. Most of its segments are filmed straight on, as if looking at them through a frame. Is it a great film? I think it may be, but I don't have any urgent desire to see it again soon. What it did to me was make me aware of watching, of patiently waiting to see what image would be presented to me next, what piece of the puzzle that is Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) would fall into place. It takes place over the course of three days, on the first of which Jeanne presents herself as a supremely capable and precise person, going through the motions of her daily existence (which include receiving a man into her bedroom, because she makes a living for herself and her son by discreet prostitution) with calm efficiency. We don't -- on the first two days, anyway -- follow her into the bedroom with her client, but the camera lingers in the hall, looking at the bedroom door, until the light fades enough to indicate a passage of time, whereupon she and the man emerge from the bedroom and go to her apartment door, where he pays her and indicates that he will see her again in a week. She then goes to her dining room and puts the money in a blue-and-white tureen, whose lid makes  a satisfying clink when she covers it. (In the absence of a music track, ambient sounds take on a greater role.) Later, her son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte), comes home from school and they have dinner, listen to the radio, go out for a walk, and come back home to rearrange the living room furniture so he can unfold the sofa for his bed. They go to sleep. But because many of these incidents are presented in real time, we are allowed to examine them in detail, to notice the furnishings of the apartment and the lack of affect of both mother and son, who have settled into a routine. We also notice the way a strange blue light, apparently from a sign outside their apartment, bounces off the surfaces of the furniture: It flashes and flickers in a way that suggests a rhythmic repetition but never quite resolves itself into a pattern. In that regard it's unlike Jeanne and Sylvain, who clearly have a pattern to their lives. And that's why it's a shock on the second day -- which begins about an hour into the film -- when Jeanne fails to do up a button on her housedress, something that Sylvain brings to her notice. Or later, when other elements of the pattern of her life don't fall in place: She burns the potatoes she is preparing for dinner; she forgets to switch off a light when she moves from room to room; she fails to put the cover on the tureen after putting the money from the second day's client into it. In any other context than the one established by the first day depicted in the film, these would be insignificant. But Akerman makes them significant, even troubling, by having made us aware of the cold precision of Jeanne's routine. That this eventually builds to a remarkable climax (I use the word advisedly but not facetiously) is made possible by the mastery with which Akerman has set up her film. I kept wondering what Alfred Hitchcock, the master of voyeurism in cinema, might have made of Jeanne Dielman, a film that makes voyeurs of us all.