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

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – 1975

Director – Chantal Akerman

Starring – Delphine Seyrig and Jan Decorte

Usually when the term slice of life is thrown around in regards to a film, it most often will mean that story arc and the problems contained within said arc are of a normal variety.  Something, say, that you or I might encounter in our own lives.  More of the relationship problems, issues at work, dealing with natural and or the normal circumstances of death variety, and less the fighting space aliens, police procedurals, and or stories with larger than life characters.  The term “slice of life” does not mean, however, that we eschew plot, character arc, and drama altogether in favor of ritual and routine.  Unfortunately no one bothered to tell the writer director of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (from here on out refered to as “JD2QDC1”, or perhaps more simply Jeanne Dielman).

Director, Chantal Akerman, presents us with a film that deals more closely and delicately with the ritual and ceremony surrounding everyday life than it does with the plot or the characters of the film we are watching.  I’m not kidding when I say I spent the first 2 and a half hours (you read that right, 2 and a half!) of this film watching a woman, Jeanne Dielman of the title, run errands, fix dinner, fastidiously fold sheets, boil water for coffee, pull out the sleeper couch, ride the elevator, watch a baby, prepare lunch, peel potatoes, shine shoes, look for a certain kind of button, take a bath, light the heater, and go to the post office all in almost real-time.  In the last hour or so (that’s right, it’s run time is 3 hours and 21 minutes) the story gets a tad more involved, but not enough to regain my attention.

The story, loose as it is, is about a widow, Jeanne, living in Bruxelles with her son Sylvain.  While he is at school, she goes about her day, finishing chores, sewing, and entertaining the daily john.  Prostitution, it seems, is as much of a dull, boring existence as any other occupation.  That’s it.  I’ve just saved you 3 and a half hours of your life.  Once the last 20 minutes or so comes with the big event that changes everything, I so thoroughly didn’t care, that I wished it hadn’t happened at all.  Since it seems even more of a spoiler to let someone watch this thing all the way through than it is to tell the ending, I have no problem at all with announcing what happens, but in the interest of those masochist out there who might see it anyway…

***SPOILERS***

On day 3 of 3 portrayed in the film, Jeanne welcomes her third paying customer into her home.  For reasons that are not explained nor are they explicit, she begins to panic during sex, but the man doesn’t stop.  Afterwards, as she is getting dressed, she picks up a pair of scissors and stabs him in the chest.  The rest of the 10 minutes of the film is Jeanne staring off into space in her dining room.

Now I’m not here to say that the reasons may not have been justified.  He might have been a right bastard, and deserving of death, but we’re given nothing concrete to go on.  It simply appears that thanks to the fact that the potatoes from earlier were overcooked, and that the post office was closed, this guy had to die.

***END SPOILERS***

Despite my obvious disdain for the story (or lack of) and method of storytelling (again, or lack of) in Jeanne Dielman, I really liked the look of this film.  It had a quality that mixed the realism and innocence of the French New Wave, with the sort of washed out color accessibility of the films of the 70s.  Delphine Seyrig, as Jeanne, looked great in her 1940s inspired costumes, and her apartment had a certain diorama type quality to it.  Every corner of it was open to examination, and was explored fully by the camera.  The attention to the spatial qualities of the apartment and Jeanne’s life created it’s own little world, and ends up taking on an almost surreal quality, much like the films of Jacques Tati, such as Playtime, Trafic, and Mon Oncle. 

When all is said and done, this film most definitely doesn’t deserve to be on the list of 1001 movies you must see, as it ends up it was an interesting, yet failed experimental film that took too long to say what it wanted to.  I would have rather seen some more films from the likes of Bunuel, Tati, or even something as bizarre as Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle (which by the way is completely fucked up and weird).

Masculin Feminin (AKA: Masculine Feminine) (1966)

Masculin-Feminin

Masculin Feminin (AKA: Masculine Feminine) – 1966

Director – Jean-Luc Godard

Starring – Chantal Goya, Jean-Pierre Leaud, and Marlene Jobert

Films by Jean-Luc Godard seem to play by a different set of rules than do other films from the French New Wave.  Sure each of them relies on the real settings, the fresh, often non-actors filling out the roles, and the same sort of do-it-yourself aesthetic that embodies the style, but Godard seems more interested in holding up a mirror to his audience than in weaving them a story.

Godard’s commentary on the people, places, and events of 1960’s France, are often times quite contrary to some of his peers such as Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol, or Agnes Varda.  Whereas these same ingredients played heavily on the stories of these other directors, Godard seems content to treat them AS the story with a loose narrative tying them together.  While this can make his message a bit blatant, it does nothing to remove any of the impact.

Masculin Feminin follows the rocky relationship of Paul (Leaud) and Madeleine (Goya), through a series of  encounters in seemingly mundane and everyday situations.  The characters are vain and selfish at first, flitting from one topic to another at the drop of a hat, but over time these conversations lay bare the real issue, fear.  Consumerism, politics, women’s rights, socialism, each topic is disscussed with a violent fervor, treated with the casual idealism of the Pepsi Generation before being discarded for the next cause.  Importance is gauged on the here and now, the past is history, and in the future the present has become the past.   Despite their posturing and opinions, Paul and Madeleine are afraid of what is to come, in both their relationship, and in their lives.  Each does their best to keep themselves distracted to such a degree that they don’t have to deal with their worries.

The modesty of the settings is often times punctuated through fantastic sequences of sudden violence.  A husband preventing his children from being taken by his estranged wife, gets gunned down outside of the cafe our main characters are sitting in, a man in an arcade knifes himself in the stomach after a confrontation with Paul, passengers on the same train as Paul are shot by one of the members of their own group.  This violence references the tumult in France at the time.  Mentioned at various points, the conflict in Vietnam (which in 1966 had started a year earlier in an official capacity for the Americans after being passed off by the French) must have played a huge role in defining the meaning of that violence, which was also being informed by issues as diverse as the re-election of Charles de Gaulle, the introduction of birth control, the end of WWII, and French women finally being given the vote.

One of my favorite parts of any movie from the French New Wave Era is the depiction of 1960s Paris.  The tone of these films ride heavily on the unwritten character of city in which they are filmed.  Seemingly, this Paris is perpetually wet, active, and alive.  The somewhat nostalgic black and white photography allows for a depth and dimension that partially comes from the guerrilla filmmaking methods of filming real people in real locations, and partially from the new-found mobility that comes with lighter and more portable camera gear of the time.  Another element unique to the 1960s is the merging of future and past design elements in everything from clothing, to cars.

Godard is a love-him or hate-him kind of director.  His work was definitely his own vision, and often times flies directly in the face of commonly accepted practices in terms of movie making.  Each plays with it’s medium, editing, sound, plot, or character, to punctuate and draw attention to the fact that you are watching a movie.  Masculin Feminin is an example of all of these, often referencing itself, it’s director, and it’s actors outside of the story and the characters.  If you’re intrigued by this, you’ll probably love it.  If, however, the thought of this annoys you, it’s probably not your cup of tea.