Sunday, August 2, 2009

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Nazi Zombies and Quentin Tarantino

This afternoon, I saw Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at the YBCA.

The 1975 Belgian film (French with subtitles) clocked in at an interminable 201 minutes but overall, I'm not complaining. Directed and written by Chantal Akerman and starring Delphine Seyrig, the film was amazingly effective.

The plot is excruciatingly repetitive. A fortysomething widow lives a numbingly structured life - wake up, make coffee, make breakfast for her son, send him to school, run errands, babysit the neighbor's baby, make dinner, prostitute herself, clean up, greet her son upon his return, serve dinner, help him with his homework, listen to the radio and go to sleep. If the routine is not dreary enough, Ms. Dielman adds her own perfunctory charm to her tasks. She's the type of woman that folds every bit of paper neatly (even the waste) and saves every scrap of aluminum foil. Akerman, through the pacing of her film, makes sure the audience feels (and empathizes) the full monotony of Dielman's decidedly existential existence.

Unappreciated by son (whom she dotes on and whores herself for), Jeanne doesn't seem to have much reason for living. The films shows her life in excruciating detail. We see her bread her veal, make her coffee, run her errands and take her post-coital bath...all in real-time. She goes about these tasks with the precision and emotion of a Swiss watch.

The film follow ~48 hours in Dielman's life. Her Tuesday john doesn't affect her much but her Wednesday john arouses or disconcerts her enough that she forgets to comb her hair & put the lid on the jar she keeps her money in. They don't seem like significant events but after 2 hours of seeing Jeanne Dielman close every door, turn off every light, clean every surface, etc. it's a big deal. As for her Thursday john...well I get to him later.

Most of the film consists of Seyrig on screen by herself. She has nothing to react to except inanimate objects (including the men in her life). Mostly dealing with cooking utensils and cleaning supplies, the dialog is not much more illuminating. Her son is sullen and her clients are taciturn and businesslike. The most emotional character is the baby that she watches who cries loudly at her every touch.

In this context, what Seyring accomplishes is rather amazing. Through the expression of her face (or lack thereof), we watch her descend from quiet desperation to giving full voice to her frustrations. What an expression it is too!

Back to the Thursday john. After a full day of making small "mistakes" or changes to her daily routine, Dielman gets a triple whammy. First, the baby is extra loud at her touch and nothing she can do will soothe the baby. Next, her sister in Canada sends her a present she has been eagerly anticipating for a few days. It turns out to be a rather dowdy pink nightgown. Finally, Mr. Thursday gives her an orgasm. That scene deserves more recognition because it was brilliant. Shot from above, we see Jeanne and her trick in the missionary position from the waist up. I thought the man was unconscious or sleeping but apparently he was only using his lower body. I think most women would be bored or offended by his rather unenthusiastic pelvic ministrations but Jeanne's reaction is to have an impressive orgasm.

That rapture truly awakened something in her life. Open to interpretation, I hypothesize it brought full awareness of the desolation of her life. Also, I suppose the fact that so little was needed to provide so much pleasure must have been saddening. If you are starving but someone give you one grain of rice and it produces so much pleasure, you must be aware of how wretched your life has become.

Anyway, that orgasm gives Jeanne the impetus to vent her frustrations. Namely, by plunging a pair of scissors into the man's neck. Not surprising given the quiet oppression of her life; I think the fact that she failed to wash the man's blood off her hands was more peculiar. The film ends with her sitting alone in silence at the dinner table. That would be interchangeable with many other scenes in the film except she has blood on her hands and blouse and now her eyes are downward and despondent whereas before they were strightforward and vapid.

I'm curious as to how her son would have responded upon arriving home but this film isn't about shock and histrionics. It's about internalized misery and emptiness of the soul.

Classified as a "feminist" masterpiece, I can certainly understand the gender specific expectations that could have resulted in Dielman becoming who she became. However, I'm not sure if Jeanne Dielman was the results of societal pressures and her own character flaws. There is a scene where Dielman and her son discuss women having sex with ugly men. Dielman recounts how she married the boy's father. When he was successful, her family urged her to marry him. They characterized him as handsome and likely to make her happy. She refused. After the war, when his business failed, her family reversed their opinion; they thought him ugly and likely to bring her misery. She married him at that point. So clearly, Dielman was a rebel in her youth. Whatever rebellious nature she had was fully domesticated as a result of time, death and familial responsibilities. Like wild horses, if you break them too hard, you destroy the spirit of the animal. That might have been what ultimately destroyed Jeanne Dielman.


I've seen four other films that I haven't cataloged.

The Hangover; (2009) - Official Website
Dead Snow; Norwegian with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Reservoir Dogs directed by Quentin Tarantino; (1992)
Pulp Fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino; (1994)

I've never viewed Reservoir Dogs on the big screen. I don't think much is lost by seeing it on DVD. The film had such a low budget and plot driven that it is perfectly suitable for DVDs. I was good the film again. It was several years since I last saw it. Michael Madsen has aged alot in the past 17 years; Harvey Keitel hasn't. I also thought it was Steve Buscemi that was talking about talking about Madonna's Like a Virgin but it was Tarantino. Also, they kept talking about the heist being a five man job but there were six guys in black suits; Tarantino and another (I can't remember his color) were killed during the robbery attempt.

I saw Pulp Fiction in the theater (twice) when it was originally released. The soundtrack and few scenes benefited from the big screen. I particularly liked the scene where Travolta shot up and a close-up of his syringe was shown. Also, the scene where Vega (Travolta) accidentally shot Marvin in the face and brain matter is splattered onto Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) jheri curls; the details of the brain matter was more evident on the movie screen.

Dead Snow was a disappointing film about Nazi zombies. It sounds good and there are few memorable scenes but these zombies are after hidden treasure. What the hell? What kind of zombie is motivated by anything other than the taste human flesh? Best scene - self-amputation (the arm) followed by self-cauterizing the stump. Of course, the zombies next bite him on the penis but he can't bring himself amputate that.


YTD through August 2, I've seen 221 films at an average cost of $7.04/film.

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