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A music blog by Mark Nishimura

Singer-songwriter Bad Heart performs ballads of aloneness and loneliness, keeping the ghosts of the no-no boys and Sleepy John Estes in his throat and more than a few card tricks up his sleeve. Originally from San Francisco, he currently is absorbing the city lights of Hollywood.

“Jeanne Dielman,” a horror film

I couldn’t even remember the first two words of the film’s title. I told the clerk at Rocket Video that it was “Jeanne … something …” and that the filmmaker was “something … Akerman.” How helpful was that?

“You mean, Andy Ackerman? The TV director?” he asked.

Um, no.

After several minutes, we finally figured it out and I walked out of the store with a copy of Chantal Akerman’s 1976 film, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” Years ago, I heard about this film from my brother and a couple of friends. I don’t know what made me recall it now, but it was a stormy day in Los Angeles, and it seems like the right time to see a three-plus-hour film starring Delphine Seyrig as a middle-aged widowed housewife doing her daily chores around the house.

And yes, that’s all she does in the film. Although you only get to see three days of her life, you get the sense that everyday she wakes up her son for school, makes coffee and breakfast, sees her son off, washes the dishes, does errands, checks the mail, makes lunch, babysits the neighbor’s kid for a half-hour, drinks more coffee, makes dinner, cleans the bathroom, helps her son study when he comes home, takes a nightly walk around the neighborhood, and then it’s off to bed. Oh, one more thing: to make some extra money, she prostitutes herself at 5 p.m. exactly for a half-hour.

So after an hour into the film, my mind began to wander, drifting into different directions. By the second hour, I started meditating on her chores; her duties, like her preparing veal for dinner or shining her son’s shoes, resembled religious rituals. She seems so focused on that veal! But then again, there is something comforting about our daily routines. We can turn off our minds and watch everything fall exactly where they need to be. The same results every time, no worries whatsoever.

Sounds boring? Perhaps. I mean, I had the urge to fall asleep during this film, since there’s nothing going on, but damned if I did.

By the end of the second hour, during the afternoon of the “second” day, something does happen. She forgets to cover the china jar, where she stashes her extra money. Then she forgets the potatoes cooking on the stove. That’s when the horror begins – Jeanne’s horror, that is. She begins to drop things, her daily routines are derailed, and even coffee doesn’t seem to taste good anymore. Suddenly Time itself turns against her, and she finds herself having an extra hour to kill. So she sits, waits, thinks. Anxiety kicks in. Something has to be done about this.

As her son rambles on about his confused philosophy on sex, as her sister complains in her letter about her own boring life, and as the neighbor’s baby just cannot stop crying, Jeanne barely says a word, but near the end of the film, she is screaming inside her mind. Then the doorbell rings. It’s 5 p.m. Another client is at the door. By the last 10 minutes of the film, something actually happens, something shocking, but I will stop there.

It is never revealed what caused the breakdown of Jeanne’s routines, but I get the feeling that it started right after the second john’s visit. Also not revealed is why the neighbor drops off her baby at Jeanne’s place at exactly 12 noon; though I’m guessing that the neighbor is turning tricks at that time, just like Jeanne does at 5 p.m. Perhaps the neighbor is following the same path as Jeanne’s. And that would be the start of another horror film.

An experiment: Take a look at the two clips below and ask yourself, so how do you peel potatoes? Do you find the task boring?

A scene from “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”

 

Last year, Criterion Collection released its DVD version of “Jeanne Dielman” and held a Jeanne Dielman Cooking Contest, which is pretty self-explanatory. Here is one participant’s video entry:

  1. sure aint jadorowski’s ‘el topo,’ but it’s kind of cool none the less. thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Great writing. I will never see the film and would love to know the shocking ending. Whaddya think? ;)

  3. Ha! Well, Lisa, I will admit the film is a required taste. I’ll email you about the ending. :)

  4. I love it…it is amazing how our routines can both comfort us and make us crazy. For some people just a small change in the daily routine can completely throw them off. For others we purposely create some change and mix it all up. I don’t know if I’d be able to sit through the film…but I kinda want to know the ending to ;)

  5. I agree, Charlene. I think I tend to fall in the second category, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of daily routine. And sure, I’ll email you the ending — like I mentioned before, the film is a required taste ;)

  6. Great writing as usual, badheart! I vaguely recall this film from film school and although I don’t remember much of the movie itself (it probably uses the locked-down, unblinking, ‘watch the paint dry’ camera style so popular in late 60s-70’s art films, a style which almost always puts me to sleep, especially if nothing much is going on in frame and I’m tired to begin with). I do remember that Ackerman was only 25 when she made it, that it influenced a lot of art film auteurs at the time and that it was considered a feminist manifesto and a masterpiece of sorts (does that still hold up today, I wonder?). Needless to say, your description makes me also want to know the ending! I suspect it will probably involve someone getting killed (she, her son or the ‘visitor’). At least that would be the most obvious and “shocking” way to finalize her nervous breakdown; hopefully Ackerman has something more interesting and profound in mind.

    For myself, I’ve found that having a few simple routines and habits one can fall back on without thinking is very helpful in times of great stress. I’ve learned that when one has no extra time or energy to waste on trivial decisions, it’s good to be able to rely on successful, established patterns of behavior to see one through. On the other hand, defaulting to established routines for no good reason other than being too fearful, too lazy or too habituated to the status quo can be emotionally and intellectually stultifying and often destructive (especially in relationships).

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