Jeanne Dielman, finally
I’m trying to remember in what format I might have been able to see Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles before streaming media came around. I’ve learned it was available in VHS, and was revived in New York at least once, in 2009 at the Film Forum, the calendar for which I always scanned assiduously when I lived there. But it never occurred to me to try and see it.
I know at least part of the reason. I’m sexist. I mean I don’t endorse sexism, but I admit to having it as a condition, like racism and ableism and all that stuff, and though I do a passable job of fighting off my ancient bred-in-the-bone prejudices they don’t die easily. (I could do a whole long riff on what it would take to even hope to kill them, using the metaphor of long-term medical conditions like canine atopic dermatitis.) I was much worse 10 years ago, not to mention 20, 30, and 40.
Back in the day I wouldn’t mind subjecting myself to a difficult film experience of a certain kind. I recall in 1980 I saw the entirety of Syberberg’s seven-hour Our Hitler at Hunter College — we got a dinner break, just like the thrillseekers who saw Strange Interlude on Broadway did back in the day.
Which is hilarious. The thing was made for German TV! It wasn’t meant to be watched all together! At least Bergman cut down Scenes from a Marriage when it ran in theaters. But I went and I knew going in it would be a slog, but that was part of the fun — part of the absurd effort that made the achievement special and worthy of bragging on. And long stretches of it were didactic, pallid, unrewarding. I still sat for it. Seeing Our Hitler was butch in a nerd way.
I knew about Jeanne Dielman, though it was made before I moved to Arthouseland, and I recall my impression was that it was long — as long as The Godfather Part II — and that it was difficult, but not in the right way. For one thing, it was feminist. I mean. You know. And for another — actually it was just that one thing, the dim perception that it was assertively a female point of view, enough that I as a man knew that I wasn’t going to be able to crowd into the perspective except maybe as some horrible penis villain, and that it would be an experience akin to nagging. Oh, and somewhat, that it was “slow.” The Godfather Part II was austere; people still got killed and if not so many as in the first one, there was still an abundance of lurid male suffering, just not with blood. There were plenty of great films out there; this one I was able to laugh off.
Well, live and learn. The missus and I saw it a few weeks ago and of course it’s amazing. Not to approach a review as it’s besides the point (though maybe I will sometime), but the long real-time takes, the waits in the lobby, the cooking, the boy studying and Dielman writing letters or sewing while the radio plays, are not only grand and evocative, but also absolutely what, as a young man, I would have enjoyed the audacity of. Whether I would have felt as keenly and with such outrage the joke the men make of Dielman when she can’t get the stamp machine to work, I can’t be sure, though as the son of a widowed mother I think I would have; things like that always bothered me, though I usually couldn’t be so sure the auteur shared my feelings.
I had a little more from this viewing than I might have as Dielman began to deteriorate near the end. '“She’s pregnant,” my wife said. It never would have occurred to me. Just now looking at it again, I got a little more on my own; when, for example, during one night’s dinner, after the soup course, Dielman tells her son, “We’ll have to wait a bit, the meat and the vegetables were on a very low flame,” and the kid turns over his book and starts reading, Dielman looks furtively at his book, then at the table cover, and then she brushes at the table cover and pulls at the edge of it. She wanted him to talk to her, I suddenly thought. Mother, I’m sorry.
So much we miss and might have had.