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).

Neco Z Alenky (AKA: Alice) (1988)

Neco Z Alenky (AKA: Alice) – 1988

Director – Jan Svankmajer

Starring – Kristyna Kohoutova

The story of Alice and her journey through wonderland is a dark and surreal one.  Animals talk, nothing is as it should be, and anger and fear are the emotions of choice.  As a kid, I was fascinated by the illustrations from the book.  They provided a very accurate portrayal of the sense of unease that I got from the story.  There was a danger mixed with the serene and a malice blended into the everyday.  This is a feeling that is perfectly recreated by the film Alice, stop-motion animated creatures made up of bones, rusty utensils, taxidermy and all.

It was just this last weekend that I ventured out to see the most recent re-make of the Alice in Wonderland, the one by Tim Burton, and I thought it appropriate that I should review this little known version.  While the newer film is the victim of re-writes, and computer-generated everything, this version, directed by cult animator Jan Svankmajer, stays faithful to the original text and feels like a flea market come to life.  The only live action actor (actress in this case) is Kristyna Kohoutova, as the curious and plucky Alice.  Every other inhabitant of Wonderland is created through the stop-motion animation technique, and is a patch work of animal bones, stuffed and mounted animals of every variety, and old, weathered household items stalking around with a sense of malicious purpose.

It’s odd that someone like Burton, who was so clearly inspired by, and borrowed from films like Alice, strayed so far from this successful cocktail in his own re-telling.  The fact that we can see the strings and the seams of each creation, manages to make it that much more dangerous and foreign to us.  There is danger around every corner for this young girl, yet she bravely plods onward without so much as a second thought.  The closest thing to a guide she has is the mangy looking white rabbit, who is continually leaking sawdust.   The Queen of Hearts, her court and her soldiers, are literally made up of a deck of cards, and when she shrinks, Alice turns from a live actress into a disturbing little china doll.  Wonderland itself is made up of a series of rooms, each more intriguing and bizarre than the last.

The one failing I would place on Alice, is the fact that while each of its characters is creepy, there is little to differentiate between them.  The March Hare and the Mad Hatter are just as off-putting and strange as the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts, making the disturbing effect of watching them wear off a little too soon.  By the end it was a little too repetitive, and as a result I was drawn out of the movie.

As far as adaptations of this story goes, Alice is far better than the most recent version, but still remains third behind the imagination of the Disney animated version, and the beyond surreal TV version with Sammy Davis Jr. and, God help us, Carol Channing scaring the shit out of me by turning into a goat!  All in all, Alice is a very fun watch.

“Bitch need some chapstick!” – Ashley