Break out your shoe polish and dishrags, for today, Tuesday, August 25, 2009, one of the greatest films of all time is finally getting its video debut in the United States. The Criterion Collection is releasing Chantal Akerman's epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxhelles in a gorgeous 2-DVD set.
One of the greatest films ever made? A 201-minute structuralist/feminist film in which nothing happens except a woman cleans her apartment? A film shot almost entirely in medium shots, with no camera movement, few cast members, hardly any exterior shots, and even less dialogue? A film that merely chronicles the tedium of doing chores and running errands, seemingly in real time? What could possibly be so great about that?
With all that going for it, it comes as little surprise that Jeanne Dielman is just now getting a proper video release in the United States. It is difficult to explain the greatness of Jeanne Dielman to someone who is not up for the experience. The film is a complete slap in the face to traditional narrative conventions, a combination of Andy Warhol's epic films like Empire and Sleep and the film-essays of Jean-Luc Godard like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (also recently released on DVD by Criterion) that seems to want to make the audience feel little more than the slow passage of time. But this is what makes the film great: it sticks to its guns, audience expectations be damned, and delivers to the audience the most devastating depiction of the housewife's confined life in cinema (eat it, Revolutionary Road). If we think watching a housewife work for three hours is boring, try living her life.
In that sense, it requires a certain act of will on the part of the American viewer -- or any viewer, for that matter -- to "endure" the film. It requires us to meet Akerman more than halfway, and if you don't buy into her vision, you won't make it past the first 30 minutes. However, once you give yourself to the film and settle into its rhythms, all of that stuff about defying traditional narrative, courting boredom, and all the rest of it falls away. You get sucked into the story and the film becomes an edge-of-your-seat thriller, a ticking time bomb. Even though you feel like you have a pretty good idea of what will happen -- she'll run another errand, she'll clean some more stuff -- you're terrified of what will happen if something breaks Jeanne's rigidly designed pattern. And when that pattern does start to go unravel, the duration of the film serves to make the story all the more uneasy: we see the train wreck coming, but we don't know when, where, or how it will happen. We also can't do anything about it. We can only watch and wonder how it came to this, and as we think back over the events of the film, we can see how inevitable all of it is and how close we are to Jeanne's fate.
The film matches Jeanne's obsessively routinized day by being equally constrained in its visual structure. Every shot, literally every single one, is a flat, static shot set up on a perpendicular axis to the action at about five feet off the ground (Akerman's eye level). There are no close-ups and wide shots are saved for the exteriors. So while the camera placement in each scene seems totally arbitrary and "objective," nothing could be further from the truth. Designing a three-hour film around this visual strategy requires a clearly thought-out point of view. It also requires a truckload of determination and artistic restraint. Imagine the temptation to break the design, to make the film more interesting visually, to move the camera, especially when you know that these techniques would make the film more "entertaining." It takes someone with a steel rod for an artistic backbone to make such decisions and stick to them. The fact that Akerman was 25 years old when she made this film -- the same age at which Orson Welles began Citizen Kane -- only serves to make Jeanne Dielman a more tremendous achievement.
Jeanne Dielman is a film with the commitment and brashness of youth paired with the wisdom and restraint of old age. It is, in short, perfect, the kind of total work artists dream of making just once. It is a film that swings for the fences, no concessions, no compromises, and it remains true to itself and what it wants to say. Regardless of whether its style and themes are to our liking or not, one must admire such a success.
Until this DVD release, Jeanne Dielman was the kind of film you heard about for years before you found a copy of it. My copy was a horrendous fourth-generation bootleg from a VHS tape. I knew the quality was horrible, but until I saw a print of the film at LACMA last April, I had no idea how awful it was. For a film so devoted to small details, a crisp video transfer is essential, and the folks at The Criterion Collection have once again outdone themselves. And while I may mourn the aura the film acquired by being hard to find, it is comforting to know that new viewers can find this film and experience its power immediately.