Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

For years I’ve watched a crummy bootleg of this film. How crummy? Let’s just say that you have to sit through long stretches of black while the next reel gets loaded onto an editing table. A year ago, I got my hands on a copy of a French DVD. Tuesday night I was given the chance to see the film projected, with a beautiful new 35mm print. This should have been a life changing experience. Instead, it has sparked a new section of this blog, a section dedicated to apologies.

I’ve only walked out of two films in my entire life. At the end of this post I’ll reveal which two films hold this honor. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, now enters this pantheon as film number three. Unlike the other two films, I did not leave Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece out of anger. I left out of necessity. At least, that is the excuse use to comfort myself.

Before the film started I was running around like a madman slashing things off my to-do list. I had a midterm to administer. I had to take my wife and daughter home then turn around and head back to campus. I had to help two students re-organize their editing files, only to find out their hard drive was corrupt. I had to try and fix their problem. I had my own editing to do. I had a phone call take because it was automated and would tell me when our new appliances would be delivered. I had to get over to the Union Theatre to see Jeann Dielman.

I got to the theater in time to hear an opening announcement about film. The second reel of the movie literally feel off the truck somewhere between Milwaukee and Cleveland. Tonight’s screening would thus include a 16mm second reel. While not the purists ways to see the film, it was close, and showed some ingenuity on behalf of the theater staff.

Then, right before the film was to start that call came in. I rushed to the lobby to confirm I would be at my house on Wednesday from 4 to 6 PM to received the delivery of our new dishwasher and stove. The humor was not lost on me as I returned to the theater and took my seat just in time to watch Jeanne Dielman ignite her stove.

I sat through the first reel totally enthralled, not with the action so much, but with the beauty of the print. The mundane existence of Jeanne Dielman does have a hypnotic affect, but tonight her daily routines only called attention to my mental to-do list. There were so many things I should be doing, rather than sitting in a dark theater watching someone else work.

Finally, somewhere in the third reel, I did what I never imagined myself doing. I got up and walked out. With a horrible pain in my stomach and a gray cloud over my soul I slunk back to the office. I tired to fix a hard drive. I did some editing. I graded some papers. I performed work.

Was it a productive night? Yes. Did I have a transcendental experience performing this work? No.

While I worked, I had music blaring. Something I noted in Jeanne Dielman was the quietness of her day. Today we often leave a television on or listen to the radio when we work. We fill our space with noise, perhaps to feel less alone. I think that on Tuesday night I was play music simply to block out the two voices in my head. One accusing me of not being a dedicated film lover. The other telling me its more important to get out and do something.

I apologize to Chantal Akerman and I pray the gods of film forgive me.

As promised the other two films I’ve walked out on.

Film Number 1

Film Number 2

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8 thoughts on “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

  1. I sympathise, Ryan. It seems like a decadent use of time to sit and watch Jeanne preparing to crack for three hours. It’s an important and powerful film, but I can see why you’d skip out on it. You could watch News From Home twice in that timespan!

    Some may disagree, but I think Jeanne confronts us with a cinema of boredom. It’s about how a woman is tipped over the edge by 1) the tension created by the repetitiveness in her day and 2) the sudden break in that routine. It wants you to feel that routine and sense that frustration. Getting fed up of it is a natural reaction. But, having stared for ages at Warhol films, I think an aesthetic of boredom can have its own fascinations sometimes.

  2. After having a daughter (now aged 21 mos.) and staying home with her for 2 or 3 days out of the week, I get a glimpse into the boredom that cracked Jeanne Dielman. Of course, she never had a e-mail, the Internet, or a blog. I respect the need or desire to present boredom through cinema. Some of my favorite works embrace or elude to it. At the same time, for whom are these films made? The average filmgoer who seeks escapist thrills is not going to understand Jeanne Dielman and simply see it as a failure of a film. I am have inclined to think that Jeanne Dielman is made for an intellectual set that needs to be informed about the mundane existence of a housewife. In this sense, I actually find the film a bit offensive. Though Akerman is careful and sympathetic enough to diffuse whatever offense I may have, at the same time for those going about the practice of life she demands a lot and provides a point that is all too personal and familiar.

  3. As for me watching Dude, Where’s My Car? I was looking for something thoughtless to simply laugh at. The tickets were free, but even I, a person who has seen the Carrottop film Chariman of the Board, could not find the energy to heckle Dude, Where’s My Car. Instead, we theater hopped over to Castawsy and made fun of Tom Hanks. “Swim Forrest, Swim!”

  4. But are you saying that somehow “intellectuals” or even just people who feel they get something out of Jeanne Dielman don’t know boredom or the tedium of a working class life style?

    Also I’m not so sure it is the boredom that breaks her. I think the routine is very much self implemented as a way to protect herself. The breaking down of this system is more just the outward symptom of whatever it is that is going on inside of her. I read an interview where Akerman says it is all because she has an orgasm with the man on the 2nd day but I am trying to ignore that since it limits things a bit too much for me.

  5. It’s the disruption to the routine that pushes her over the edge, but she’s not exactly whistling while she works prior to that. The household chores are depicted as stultifyingly mechanical. It may well be how she protects herself, but the fact that she protects herself with routines that don’t require emotional fluctuations seems to be what allows the tension to build up.

  6. No, I’m not saying that “intellectuals” or anyone else who likes Jeanne Dielman doesn’t know boredom. They most certainly do. Don’t we all know boredom?

    My real problems come from the disconnect that happens when any filmmaker creates a great work of cinema, which I think Jeanne Dielman is, only to have that work rarely exposed to an audience that could benefit the most from seeing the film. How many housewives were in the audience? How many stay at home moms are going to get excited when this comes out on a Criterion DVD? How many will even know…or care? I want more people to see films like this because I think they can make us all acutely aware of the routines we all fall into, for whatever reason.

    The question is how do you stress the importance of a film like this to someone who is already stuck in those routines. This is the crisis I felt first hand. “How can I sit here and watch this film when there is so much I have to do?” And, having to do all these things, why would I then want to take a break from my work to only be reminded of how suffocating daily routines can become?

    I come from a background of film as escapist entertainment. That’s how I grew up, that’s how most people I know still treat film. For me, that wasn’t enough or I simply had enough. Yet, I on occasion I can see the argument for escapism. See Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” for further points on that matter.

    As for Jeanne Dielman, I’m still wrestling with the question of who is speaking, for whom and to what audience.

  7. I get what you are saying but I certainly don’t place blame on Chantal Akerman for it. I have had this argument with my mother on an almost constant basis. She doesn’t want to see her life when she goes to the theater she wants to get away from it and to a certain extent I get what she is saying. It’s a viscous circle in our society where the works or ideas that attempt to make an honest comment on the problems wont be seen or listened to because of the apathy instilled in most people from the society. People don’t think they can do anything and that is the real problem. Why bother watching Jeanne Dielman when as soon as they leave the theater they are going to have to go right back to their tedious lives? I guess my answer is that I go to connect. It might not make life’s problems go away but at least you know you are not alone.

    I gotta go get on the bus though, but I would like to continue this later.

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