The Most Beautiful Fraud: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor. Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open. (Joseph Brodsky)
Of what value is boredom in criticism? Noel Murray wrote recently that it was one of his most hated critical terms, though I think this is more a function of the critic than the creation. Being bored can mean that a work of art has failed to engage you on an aesthetic level, but it can also mean that you have a short attention span, or that you become easily frustrated with something confusing, unexpected, or unusually paced. This is particularly true in the age of the blockbuster, when audiences and critics alike start to doze if something or someone is not blown up or penetrated every ten minutes.
Still, as the abolitionist Wendell Phillips observed, boredom is itself a form of criticism, and if your overwhelming response to a work of art is to be bored, the artist must answer for that. Boredom is certainly the default reaction of most viewers to Chantal Akerman’s provocative, brilliant 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, so it’s necessary to dig a little deeper and ask: what does our boredom mean? At nearly three and a half punishing hours, the story of a single mother’s prison-like routine of housework, tending to her dullard of a son, and occasional work as a prostitute* to keep afloat is intended to bore us. Akerman’s motionless camera, recording without flourish the everyday banality of a struggling working-class woman, uses boredom like a truncheon, pounding us into empathy and defying our expectations at every turn. She means to make us understand what life is like for millions of women just like Jeanne Dielman, and would trap us in this role of exhausted observer forever if she could.
What is shocking, then, is how Jeanne Dielman bores without alienating. It is a film that bores, but is not boring; though many would find it intolerably tedious, I find it far more compelling than big-money wastes of time that pop constantly on the screen but go nowhere. The film’s virtues are many: structurally, it’s absolutely masterful, and for a narrative in which almost nothing happens, every scene is worth paying attention to. Akerman’s visual constructions take the banal and make them breathtaking; the composition of many of its static shots are the equal of anything one might expect in a Peter Greenaway film. Credit is due, too, to cinematographer Babette Mangolt and editor Patricia Canino; their work takes Akerman’s structural planning and turns it into the art of the commonplace, transforming low-bourgeois bedrooms and kitchens, welfare offices and cobbler’s shops into slowly moving tapestries of struggle.
Jeanne Dielman, too, might be the most Situationist film ever made, and coming at the moment in time it did, could be seen as the culmination of that movement’s visual argument. Far more than the didactic aggression of Godard’s political films, or the near-mystical abstraction of the short films of SI godhead Guy Debord himself, Akerman’s masterpiece hones in with merciless exactitude on that most important of qualities, the critique of everyday life. She forces your attention without quarter on the samey routine of her protagonist, literally never letting us look away. The restrictions and tiny oppressions of poverty are taken as simple reality, not made into an operatic setpiece; and the stakes are shown to be grotesquely high in the most ordinary and gradual manner imaginable.
And here is where Jeanne Dielman transcends boredom, which it uses to command the viewer’s focus the way a robber might use a knife to the throat, and becomes something magnificent, something that justifies with finality the much-marginalized use of realism in cinema. I won’t attempt a long discourse on the uses of realism; my friend Tom Block does a pretty definitive job of it here. There is something to be said about the nature of escapism, which I may get around to one of these days, but for Jeanne there is no escape. What is so overwhelming about the narrative is not that Jeanne’s disintegration is played as spectacle, the shocking act of a woman gone mad, but as inevitable, the predictable result of a thousand tiny humiliations and defeats.
Akerman shows us — no, makes us see — the power of the seemingly meaningless to destroy those without power. With the eye of someone who has lived it, she shows how the utterly ordinary concatenation of frustrations — dropping a spoon, running out of potatoes, breaking a shoe — can pile up to the point where they seem completely intolerable. Little frayed ends that would occupy center stage in most ‘psychological dramas’ are here made part of the background, becoming an omnipresent factor that is barely noticed but that spells unavoidable destruction. Jeanne’s slow decay is not rendered in moments of hysterical drama or arch obviousness, and Delphine Seyrig plays her as the complete philosophical opposite of her character in Last Year at Mareinbad. Instead, her breakdown is a mechanical one, like a machine tasked to do the same repetitive job one too many times. She reads a concerned letter from her sister in the voice of a ghost, and the electric flickers on her wall pass her notice, even though they are warnings of imminent catastrophe. And when the final violent break comes, it’s not inspired by some horrible abuse or degradation — it’s brought on by a minor loss of control, which, to people who control almost nothing about their lives, can be the worst thing of all.
Akerman has always stood out slightly from her peers in European cinema: Belgian, not French; working-class, not a product of the universities; female, not male; gay, not straight (and yet powerfully resistant to the idea of being categorized and showcased as a ‘gay filmmaker’); Jewish, not Gentile; structural, not formal; and lethally literal where others can be maddeningly metaphorical. This shows in all of her best work (It’s nearly impossible to track down, but I cannot recommend enough her hypnotic travelogue D’Est), and the slight whiff of disrepute it gave her allowed her that extra few feet of freedom to make a movie as daring as Jeanne Dielman. Watch it, and you will be bored, but you will hopefully gain the sense of boredom being used on you as a tool, an effect, a weapon, of witnessing realism as a trial by fire and boredom as a craft wielded as skillfully as Hitchcock used suspense. It is the everyday as art where the game seems numbingly slow, but the stakes are terrifyingly high.
*: Another exceptional quality of Jeanne Dielman is how, through its rigor and determination, it short-circuits the judgment that is the natural Western reaction to any suggestion of unconventional female sexuality by making it so matter-of-fact that it is almost invisible. Until it is necessary for Akerman to bring it to the fore, she sublimates it into the ordinary so that it becomes no more worthy of comment than her washing the dishes.