Wednesday, February 10, 2010


It's fortunate that Netflix sent Jeanne Dielman before our double-whammy Snowblivion event. Without being trapped in the house for days and sick, I might have lost patience and missed out on one of the most peculiar and interesting films I've seen in some time.

Now I have a lot of endurance for tedious foreign films: I've sat through some glacially paced Tarkovski films, I've made it through L'Aventurra, but compared to Jeanne Dielman, those are sitcoms. Jeanne Dielman, at nearly 3.5 hours in length, moves in geological time.

We watch Belgian widow Jeanne as she moves through her daily routines: lighting the heater, preparing coffee, making lunch, going to market, preparing dinner, serving her son, assisting with his homework, washing the dishes, dusting, cleaning. We watch all of this in intimate and nearly exhausting detail. The only part of the day during which we don't observe Jeanne is the most surprising: she services a John in her flat while her son is at school each afternoon.

Not much background is provided. We know her husband has been dead for five years. We know her only other relatives have moved to Canada. We see that she has no friends, and only the most superficial relations, all based in commerce (at the market, the cafe, the tailor's, with a woman for whom she babysits briefly, and with her johns). Even her relationship with her son is formulaic, and nearly ceremonial in its cool distance.

After seeing Jeanne's routines through two days and into a third, small things go haywire. She drops a brush. She forgets a button on her bathrobe. The alarm fails to go off. She overcooks the potatoes. All of this adds up to a very subtle feeling of dread, because by this point of the film we know Jeanne to be fastidious and efficient in the extreme. I found the film's payoff creepy and totally unexpected. Jeanne Dielman is a much quieter, more artsy version of Polanski's Repulsion.

As I said earlier, without the blizzards and the illness, I might have given up on the film far too soon. It is a fracking chore to sit through. My wife only saw a third of it and she was bored to tears. But it is a curious cinematic experience, to say the least, and rewards a patient and careful observer.

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