While such matters typically stir nothing more than a familiar brief flurry of cineaste squabbling (“Vertigo is way better than Citizen Kane!” “Nuh-uh!!!”), the recent announcement of venerable British film magazine Sight & Sound’s latest “Greatest Films of All Time” poll provoked unusual, furious debate. That was in large part because the new #1 (displacing those films parenthetically noted above) was Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a famously challenging feminist “slow cinema” milestone of 3.4 hours’ length that relatively few people have seen. The reaction to this news was basically divided between “Hoorah” and “WTF?!?,” with self-professed opponents of “political correctness” loudly airing the latter sentiment.
How did Belgian writer-director Akerman’s second feature suddenly vault to the top slot, when before it had never even made the top 10? Well: The magazine solicited input from a much wider of critics, historians, programmers et al. than it had a decade prior, nearly twice the amount (at 1600+). And since that last list in 2012, MeToo and other social movements had hugely amplified longstanding calls for greater diversity of representation in the film industry. So it’s not surprising that women (including Claire Denis, Agnes Varda, Maya Deren, Vera Chytilova, Julie Dash, and others) got a big boost, as well as non-white and Third World filmmakers. An overdue one, you might say. Though of course what galled naysayers is that their accepted canon seemed to get radically altered “overnight.”
I certainly wasn’t bothered, finding such “best ever” lists inherently a bit silly anyway—as they appear to make a fact of subjective judgments that are subject to shifting fashion. The error is in taking them too seriously, rather than as a useful guide for filling gaps in your cultural education. Art isn’t science. No poll, award or opinion is a definitive measure of value, particularly for the individual viewer with their own tastes and moods. The original Star Wars came out just two years after Jeanne Dielman, but it is safe to say that the bazillions content with it having basically set the template (and attention span) for popular cinema ever since will never appreciate, or even need to see, Akerman’s movie. It is not for them.
But it is for a lot more people now than ever before, since the Sight & Sound results made a lot of hitherto idly-curious-at-best viewers feel they really, really ought to have seen Jeanne Dielman. And they can, this Sun/6 and Wed/11 (more shows may be added later) at the Roxie Theater (more info here). The oft-heard advice “you really need to see ______ on the big screen” is particularly true in this case. Not because the film is expansive or spectacular—quite the opposite—but because it is the sort that almost requires the greater focus and surrender of sitting in the dark amongst strangers, free from nearly all distractions. These 201 minutes are the kind of “nothing happening” enterprise in which the cumulative power of seemingly minor, “boring” details is precisely what lends the whole its sense of cathartic import.
Nearly a half-century after premiering, Akerman’s concept remains audacious: She sinks us into the daily routine of Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), a middle-aged widow whose apartment is her world and her prison. She cooks, cleans, and otherwise maintains a home for her teenaged schoolboy son (Jan Decorte). Part of that, which presumably he doesn’t know about, consists of her supplementing their income by servicing the sexual needs of a different male client each afternoon. But this is no MILF-y Belle du Jour—prostitution is just another monotonous chore Jeanne completes like clockwork because she has no other apparent options.
The stultifying nature of her existence is heightened by the film’s own stylistic dispassion, as we watch her complete banal task after task in long-held medium shots. Such attention to detail is lulling, but also hypnotic, patiently weaving the fabric of her interchangeable days. When that fabric rends at the end, we may feel the violent shift comes out of nowhere. Yet we’ve simultaneously come to understand a violent act (whether taken literally or metaphorically) may be Jeanne’s only escape from the claustrophobic box society has trapped her in.
Akerman died by her own hand at age 65, in 2015, a year that also saw the release of her last film, the documentary No Home Movie (about her Auschwitz-surviving mother’s death). She apparently struggled with depression, an issue Jeanne Dielman certainly reflects. But the body of work she left behind also had room for playfulness, comedy, experimentation, explorations of gender and cultural identity (though she disliked being reduced to “Jewish lesbian feminist”), even a musical or two.
This early work remains her magnum opus, however, and whether you experience it in “watching paint dry” terms or can’t watch it enough—I’m in the middle, as an admirer who’s never felt any great need to see it a second time—Jeanne Dielman is indeed a film not quite like any other. It should be seen by anyone who thinks they truly love the medium, for the way it pushes the boundaries of cinema in formal terms while delivering a considerable emotional punch… though yes, you will have to wait for it.
New movies opening this Fri/8 also poke at the notion of “a woman’s place.” Previously reviewed here when it played a Marin County venue was Soft & Quiet, which is finally getting an SF run at the Alamo Drafthouse. Beth de Araujo’s indie drama is about the first meeting of a small-town ladies’ club—which seems innocuous enough until we realize these “nice” white wives and mothers are the founding members of one “Daughters for Aryan Unity.” Their poisonous rhetoric eventually spills out into the real world, to hair-raising ends. This what-if miniature may strike some as a bit hyperbolic, but it cannily illustrates how people who think of themselves as upstanding citizens can whip themselves into a reactionary frenzy that ill betides any unlucky POC passers-by—or even can lead to, say, an attempted government insurrection.
A different sort of first-ever community meeting comprises the action in Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, opening in area theaters this Friday as well. Based on a novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews, which was in turn loosely inspired by events in an actual Bolivian Mennonite community over a decade ago, it at first appears to be taking place sometime in the 19th century. We eventually grasp that while their clothes, manners, and much else may indicate a rural life before modern technology, the characters in fact live in the present day—only completely isolated from mainstream society, in a self-contained religious sect known as The Colony. These women aren’t just “unworldly;” they’ve never seen a map of the world, never learned to read or write. They are homemakers and agricultural workers in the most reactionary sense, entirely subservient to the “menfolk.”
But the menfolk are gone at the moment—some of their number are, unthinkably, in jail. Others have dutifully gone to the nearest town of secular heathens to bail their brethren out. The crime? It has emerged that a sizable number of the men and boys here have been drugging and raping women, even young girls, in a nefarious long-running plot only unmasked when one victim woke and maimed her attacker mid-assault.
Now a representative cross-section of those women are meeting in the communal hayloft to decide what they will do. Can they ever trust the men again? Is forgiveness necessary—or even possible? Should they stay in the only home they’ve ever known, however conditionally (assuming the men will accept any conditions from women at all), or leave, opting for an unknown future over a known life founded on a faith that’s now been irrevocably violated?
It’s a very dramatic premise, and credit is due actor turned writer-director (Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell) for eschewing the obvious elements of lurid melodrama. Still, despite its serious themes, thoughtful treatment, and heavyweight cast, I found Women Talking somewhat ponderously medicinal—too much like a play written to be table-read at an human rights conference. Despite their sheltered, uneducated nature, the characters (running a wide age gamut as played by Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, and others) speak in windy poetical or schematic language, conducting their urgent day-long meeting as if practiced Parliamentarians.
While gracefully crafted, the result feels at once theatrical and too literal-minded, even if that odd balance is clearly deliberate: The film opens with the onscreen text “What Follows Is An Act of Female Imagination.” Its intentions are as admirable as they are overt, but the impact is more didactic than emotional. If you’re not drawn in, there’s too much time to ponder odd stylistic decisions like Luc Montepellier’s near-sepia faded color palette, the way Hildur Guonadottir’s score keeps sounding like the intro to “Hotel California,” or the WTF choice of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” as an end-credits cap to all this somber discussion. Though it’s gotten some rave reviews, Women Talking seems to me a movie that exists mostly as a checklist of important agenda items—as drama, as cinema, it just sits there, somewhat inert.
Actually taking place in the 19th century is Maria Kreutzer’s Corsage, about Empress Elizabeth of Austria—a figure whose eventful life has already been portrayed in many movies (as well as other media), notably as a plucky jeune fille in the 1950s German Sissi movies that made a star of beauteous Romy Schneider. Other dramatizations have focused on her tragic later years, when only son Rudolf died in a suicide pact whose scandal was dubbed “the Mayerling Incident,” then she herself was assassinated (at age 60) by an Italian anarchist.
But this plush costume piece covers some months’ span in 1877, when she’s just turned 40, and is simultaneously resigned to and in despair of the strict limits of her role. Raised more liberally in Hungary, she found the Austrian court she married into at 16 a stifling place. Played here by Vicky Krieps, middle-aged Elizabeth is bored by staid husband Emperor Franz Joseph I (Florian Teichtmeister), somewhat disappointed in the conformist complacency of her surviving children, and still mourns the others lost.
She is adventurous and intellectually curious, traits not much appreciated at home. Her beauty is admired but her marital fidelity suspected (sometimes for good reason, it’s suggested). She’s mercurial, depressed, alternately fretful and inert, sometimes petulant and eccentric. When a situation really gets on her nerves, she fake-faints to get out of it.
Kreutzer applies a very 21st-century lens to this portrait of another expensive bird in a gilded cage—one very like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, 2021’s Spencer, or last year’s Blonde (about Marilyn) for that matter. That perspective is underlined by some anachronisms, notably the use of songs written by the very 20th century likes of Kris Kristofferson and Jagger-Richards.
It’s all well-cast, handsome-looking, and reasonably interesting. Though I’ll confess Krieps is an actress who (though she seems very vivid to others) strikes me as competent but a bit colorless. And Corsage suffers from omitting the bigger bookending events of its subject’s life, because while they may be familiar to European audiences, they are much less so to American ones.
Elizabeth is really only a fascinating figure in that larger biographical context. Here, we just get an unhappy trophy wife in a loveless marriage, oppressed by the weight of external expectations and the impatience of her underemployed, restless mind—a lamentable situation, but one this film doesn’t make quite compelling enough to sustain two hours.
I’ll forget it soon, unlike the longer, slower yet indelible Jeanne Dielman, even though I haven’t seen that in 20 years or more. Corsage opens Fri/6 at Bay Area theaters including the Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael Film Center and Landmark Albany Twin.