WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2022
James Joyce's books can't be read: In the film with the title shown below really the greatest film of all time?
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Is that really the greatest film? Is that 1975 film "great" in any way at all? Because we haven't seen the film, we technically have no idea.
That said, we've been discussing those questions for the past several days. It might be time to discuss what this greatest film of all time is actually all about.
We checked in with the leading authority on this greatest film. Below, you see the rough overview the leading authority offers:
The film examines a single mother's regimented schedule of cooking, cleaning and mothering over three days. The mother, Jeanne Dielman (whose name is only discerned from the title and from a letter she reads to her son), has sex with male clients in her house each afternoon, for her and her son's subsistence. Like her other activities, Jeanne's sex work is part of the routine she performs every day by rote and is uneventful.
Then, late on the second and during the third day, Jeanne's routines begin to subtly unravel. She overcooks the potatoes while preparing dinner, and wanders around the house carrying the potato pot. She misses a button, and drops a newly washed fork. These alterations to Jeanne's existence continue before the third day's sexual customer arrives. She has orgasmic sex with the client, then impulsively stabs him to death with a pair of scissors. She then sits quietly at her dining room table.
First, she overcooks the potatoes. After that, she stabs someone to death. It's all part of a subtle unraveling!
None of that means that Jeanne Dielman might not be a truly great film. Its director, the late Chantal Akerman, was only 25 when she made the film, but the film didn't come out of nowhere. According to that same leading authority, its predecessor, Je Tu Il Elle, unfolded like this:
Julie, the focus of the film, is a young woman who lives alone in her room. For much of the film, she is seen rearranging her furniture, writing letters, lounging in the nude, and eating powdered sugar out of a paper bag. She eventually leaves her room and hitch-hikes with a young male driver. They make stops at a restaurant, a bar, and a restroom, before parting ways. The man solicits her for sex and discusses his family life in a long monologue with Julie.
Julie then stops by the house of a woman, her ex-lover. She makes Julie sandwiches and a drink, then they have sex. Julie leaves the following morning.
That could be a great film too. Admittedly, though, it's easy—perhaps even tempting—to roll one's eyes at such "avant garde" fare.
It's also true that advocates of this greatest film don't always do the greatest job explaining what makes it so great. In yesterday's award-winning report, we reviewed the strikingly fuzzy way Professor Mulvey explained, or attempted or seemed to explain, this greatest film's lasting greatness.
As we noted yesterday, we don't have the slightest idea what Mulvey's fuzzy accolades mean, and neither does anyone else. That said, other advocates of Jeanne Dielman haven't done a whole lot better as they've praised the film.
According to Decider's Glenn Kenny, here's the way Slate's Sam Adams "pithily" put it:
ADAMS (12/1/22): What’s great about JEANNE DIELMAN topping the #SightAndSoundPoll is not just that it’s the first movie by a woman but how thoroughly its long takes and rigorous mundanity militate against virtually every current in contemporary cinema. JEANNE DIELMAN has no adaptable IP, no holy-shit compositions or winking pop savviness—all it does is make you feel completely different about the way your body moves through the world.
Pithily or otherwise, that is indeed the very way Slate's Sam Adams put it! Jeanne Dielman is the greatest film of all time because its rigorous mundanity "makes you feel completely different about the way your body moves through the world."
Would that make sense if we'd seen the film? We have no idea. Except as a type of insider chatter within an extremely limited guild, that accolade makes no apparent sense as it's currently offered.
The crowning of Dielman as the world's greatest film is quite easy to mock, for at least several reasons. We'll mention again the awkward fact that the very lengthy film is often described as something like unwatchable.
How hard can it be to sit through the film? In an appreciation in the New York Times at the time of Akerman's death, Manohla Dargis offered this approach to what might, by normal standards, seem to be a problem:
DARGIS (8/20/15): The most famous meatloaf in cinema appears three hours into “Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” a 201-minute leisurely dive into one woman’s inner and outer spaces. Radical in its form and politics, “Jeanne Dielman” (1975) was made by the 25-year-old Belgian director Chantal Akerman, who remains better known in academia and on the festival circuit than in the art house. In this film, Ms. Akerman gave an old-fashioned women’s picture an avant-garde makeover to create a slow-boiling masterpiece in which time never flies—it scarcely even budges.
"Time scarcely budges" inside the "slow-boiling masterpiece," Dargis wrote, perhaps a bit diplomatically. That may be a virtue of the film, though others have made things sound somewhat different.
Other advocates may have seemed to tiptoe around the question of the overpowering boredom produced by this greatest film. Here's a clip from the BBC's report on the film's selection:
MAISHMAN (12/2/22): Lillian Crawford, a film critic and writer who contributed to the poll, said the film was the "essential text" in feminist cinema.
"Jeanne Dielman isn't a film that I would say to someone getting into cinema 'Oh, this is the first film you absolutely must see'," she told the BBC.
"I think if you're going to work through the list, maybe do it in reverse order and sort of build towards it, because it's quite an ask to invite people to see this.
"But in an academic sense and thinking about cinema and encouraging more people to seek out experimental film, films by women, and in terms of the history of feminist cinema, this is absolutely the sort of essential text."
Jeanne Dielman is the world's greatest film. It's "absolutely the sort of essential text," in an academic sense.
That said, "it's quite an ask" to invite people to see or perhaps sit through it! Another self-described fan of the film may have been a bit more direct:
HOEFFNER (12/5/22): For the uninitiated: Jeanne Dielman depicts three days in the life of the titular middle-aged widow (Delphine Seyrig), who spends her time housekeeping, running errands, and turning the occasional trick as a prostitute. Most movies would cut around the housekeeping, or at least make it dynamic and stylized for the viewing pleasure of the audience. Not Jeanne Dielman. With only the ambient hum of fluorescent lighting for a soundtrack, we watch shot after long, static shot of Jeanne doing chores, more or less in real time. She scrubs dishes, peels potatoes, folds blankets, and polishes shoes; in some ways it’s more interesting than it sounds, but in other ways it’s exactly as interesting as it sounds. The film is over three hours long, and even its fans (myself included) will tell you that it feels at least an hour longer.
Not Jeanne Dielman! Indeed, the film is more than three hours long, but as we watch its long, static shots, it feels substantially longer.
To adapt a line from some other film, this is the way this guild describes the films it very much likes.
As we noted above, the recent crowning of Jeanne Dielman is quite easy to mock. On the one hand, it's easy to mock because of the fact, as reported in the New York Times, that it's "probably the best known example of slow cinema."
It also may be easy to mock for a quite different reason. It may be easy to mock because of the fact that its absurdly inarticulate advocates keep insisting that it's a prime example of "feminist" film.
Would Jeanne Dielman strike the average shlub as an example of feminist film? We have no idea. (For the record, we'd place two of our three favorite films in that general bucket.)
Jeanne Dielman might strike us that way too! But when a gang of inarticulate drones keep repeating this claim about a film which is extremely hard to watch, this may inspire random observers to roll their eyes at the overall veneration.
Regarding that possible reaction, we'll counter by offering this:
Does it make sense to claim that the greatest film of all time is unwatchable—is quite hard to watch?
On its face, that may not seem to make sense. But then again, James Joyce is often regarded as the greatest writer of the past century and, as everyone agrees, much of his later work was, and is, essentially unreadable.
(As Joyce writes near the start of Finnegans Wake, "Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk." As we used to tell our fifth graders, "Go ahead—just sound it out!")
Joyce is lionized in spite of the fact that such work is unreadable. Does Akerman's greatest film of all time fit in some similar class?
We don't have the slightest idea about the Akerman film. We do think that the way this very limited guild has elevated this somewhat unwatchable film may offer us a wider warning about the basic frameworks of understanding we derive from our society's cosseted elites.
Nothing much really turns on the claim that Jeanne Dielman is the greatest film of all time. But how should members of our blue tribe respond to disordered public figures like Kanye West and Donald J. Trump?
That's a deeply important question! How sound is the framework we're being offered by the cosseted, overpaid elite currently accepted as the leadership of our own floundering tribe?
Tomorrow: We'll start with our own favorite films