Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles ★★★★

Hitchcock famously once said that drama is life with all the boring bits cut out. I like that line and I come back to it a lot. But in this film, Chantal Akerman proposes a starling rebuttal: life doesn’t have any boring bits, as long as you’re willing to pay close enough attention to it. Actually, I have no idea if that’s what Ackerman was saying, or if she would even agree with that. But it’s what I got out of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

I’ve long heard of this movie and been intrigued by the concept: the movie consists of a lonely widowed home-maker going about her mundane daily chores. I generally don’t dig plotless movies, but I’m also curious to see how such inventive experiments are pulled off. Something like My Dinner With Andre, but without Andre. I’m not going to lie—the big reason I hadn’t caught up with this sooner was that I was intimidated by its three hour twenty one minute run time. That’s a lot of time to invest in watching someone folding clothes and seasoning cutlets.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that it does in fact have a plot. This character changes over time. There’s developments, inciting incidents, revelations and builds toward a climax. But these are changes that we’re only able to see because we’ve been trained to pay attention, to learn the meanings of seemingly meaningless activities. The effect is that we the viewer comes to understand the action of its climax in a way that the other characters in the film never will. It builds toward a moment that will likely shock the woman’s son and her neighbors. It perhaps shocks us to, but we can see it building because we’ve appreciated the signs they’ve overlooked. The gimmick (for lack of a better word) is not a conceit that exists for its own sake, but instead serves the story. The movie’s not about the gimmick, but we need it to understand it.

I think of it like a fish tank. It’s normally decorative, stays in the background, you know its there but never give it much thought. But if you ever take the time to really pay attention to it—by that I mean to devote your full attention to observing the tank for an extended period of time, you begin to appreciate how much is really going on. The movements of the fish, their swim patters, breathing, eating, their interactions with each other and their environment, how the filter works, how the bubbles move, and the plants sway all start to take on meaning. You notice how clean or dirty the floor is. All those sounds you recognize because they’ve been in your environment, you start to become more aware of what specific actions are causing those sounds.

I think it’s the sounds that struck me the most in this film. The footsteps, the clinking of silverware, a match strike, water boiling, a doorbell. So familiar as background noise, but you become so aware of the actions that create these sounds. Not that I haven’t always known that the sound of footsteps is caused by someone walking with shoes on a hard surface, but it’s one thing to know, and another to have awareness of the very real exertion that causes such a familiar noise.

This is not to say that this is a particularly accessible movie. It does require a lot more patience and attentiveness than your normal movie. If you’re checking messages and scrolling through your phone while waiting for the movie to catch you, it probably never will and you’ll get frustrated. But cut the cord for three hours and change and allow your mind to adapt to its rhythms. It’s worth it.

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