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).

La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928)

PassionofJoanofArc

La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) – 1928

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Maria Falconetti

Quite possibly Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most influential work, The Passion of Joan of Arc owes a lot of it’s notoriety and it’s impact to it’s lead actress, Maria Falconetti.  The fear, and passion thatFalconetti conjures on camera througout the duration of the trial of Joan,  is not merely some plot point to enhance the story, it IS the story.

Staged almost entirely within the courtroom or her jail cell, the story of Joan of Arc is fairly straight forward, so much so that most people know the jist of it even if they don’t know that they know it.  Joan, the famous saint, and girl warrior, is on trial for her alleged heresy (actually she was only officially tried for wearing in-appropriate men’s clothing).  During this trial, everything from her value structure to her manner of dress is drawn into question.  Evidence is forged, and heavy eccliesiatic persuasion is used.  Through it all Joan held to her beliefs, and was eventually sentenced to death.  This is not a spoiler, it’s too well known to have spoiled anything.

From the opening shots of the courtroom, I was immediately struck by how upclose and invasive the camera work seemed to be.  Not invasive of the actors, but of me.  Shot in striking, uncomfortable close-ups, Joan’s accusers seem warped and distended.  Each face (with the exception of Joan’s) takes on a sinister look, frowning, sneering, and conspiring with a simple furrow of the brow.  Joan on the other hand, seems to have a perpetually wet, upturned gaze, similar to a lot of religious paintings.  She is given more room in the frame and as a result, she serves as a respite for us as viewers when she is on screen.

I tried my damnedest to watch it in it’s original silent state, but after catching myself nodding off a bit, I turned on the optional audio track of accompanying music.  Let me tell you…this helps SO much!  The music serves as a balast not only for the dramatic action happening on screen, but for pacing, dramatic effect, and as an additional means of engaging the audience.

One thing I was surprised about when watching this, was the over-all quality of image that this version (the Criterion Collection edition) offered.  I am used to these older films being so grainy and damaged that they seem almost blurry, so it was quite a surpise to find that the print was clear as a bell, with only a few scratches and flaws in the picture quality.  Another final critique, since this story is based on actual documentation of the court proceedings, the reach of the story seemed lacking.  I would have liked to have heard more about Joan’s deeds before her trial, whether or not they were truthful or distortions put forth by her accusers, it would have helped to liven up the story a bit.

By and large, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a pleasant surprise to me.  The image quality in particular, but also the acting, and pacing managed to avoid the trappings (read: length) that many other silent films fall into.  While there were slow moments, the last scene of the rioting villagers being fought off by palace guards was more than enough to smack me across the face.