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).

Lone Star (1996)

Lone Star – 1996

Director – John Sayles

Starring – Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Kris Kristofferson, and Matthew McConaughey

In the mid-nineties after Sex, Lies, and Videotape opened a great many doors for as well as quite a few minds to indie films, there was a rich landscape of films like John Sayles’ Lone Star being made.  Films that cared as much about characterization and plot as they did explosions and profitability.  Looking back, I’ve come to the realization that, in today’s film climate, movies at the level of Lone Star are very hard to find.

The story is both simple and complex.  Simple in it’s set up and execution, and complex in how it affects each of the characters tied to the story.  Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), son to the town legend, Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), finds a skeleton out in the desert with a sheriff’s badge.   Questions about how his father came to be Sheriff begin to come to the surface, when the body starts to look like it might have been that of Buddy’s predecessor the ruthless, corrupt, Sheriff Charlie Wade.  This discovery prompts Sam to examine  the difference between right and wrong, memory and fact, and the strength of family bonds.

Typical of John Sayles films (or at least the one other one that I’ve seen, Sunshine State), there are multiple story lines, usually dealing with family, relationships, and the weight of the past as it affects the potential of the future.  While Sam continues his investigation into what happened between his father and Charlie Wade, he reconnects with his old high school sweetheart, Pilar, played wonderfully by the magnificent Elizabeth Pena, works with the town’s mayor, and with the owner of a local bar that caters to African-Amercian clientele.  Each of these characters’ stories weave elements of the past with present-day drama, and each holds a piece of the puzzle of the body in the desert.

In terms of tying in the themes of the inter-connectivity of the past and the present, John Sayles utilizes transitions that blend seamlessly into the present-day.  Often times it seems as if Sam is part of the audience, watching each of these pieces fall into place, watching the story weave itself together as we go along.  Aside from this small visual flair, the film rests mostly on the strength of its actors, and rest assured, its actors more than carry the load.

Through simple (NOTE: when I say simple, I don’t mean that it’s easy, only that it looks effortless when he does it) use of pauses, inflection, body-language, and facial expressions, Chris Cooper gives a fully realized performance as a man tired of living under his father’s thumb.  McConaughey and Kristofferson embody memories, each filtered through the recollections of Sam, and the townsfolk, each is strong and absolute.  Pilar is an emotionally, fully rounded woman who has deprived herself of happiness trying to do what’s right by her children and by her mother.  Each character lives and breathes, and though they make believable choices, none of them are predictable or boring.

It is unfortunate that films like these aren’t being made as much as they were in the 90s.  In the wrong hands they could be mundane and mediocre, but in the right hands, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, Steven Soderburgh, and John Sayles can make us love movies on a whole other level.

P.S.  This is possibly the best acting that Matthew McConaughey has ever done.

P.P.S.  If you’d like to learn more about the indie movement of the 90s I can’t recommend “Down and Dirty Pictures” by Peter Biskind highly enough.