I’ve tried to understand sports. I haven’t tried very hard, but I’ve tried. I watched the final World Series game the last time the Giants won (largely because my husband bribed me with hot dogs and beer), and last season I went to a Twins game (again, largely for the food) and was actually able to appreciate it—for a few innings, at least.
Football, however, has always eluded me. The rules strike me as arcane, and I get a little dizzy watching the stop-and-start of plays that seldom last more than five seconds. So while my husband commandeered the living room for the Super Bowl last night (or at least the commercials), I opted for alternative programming downstairs.
I needed something long (since I knew enough about football to expect the game to be endless), and I decided to go for something as far away as possible from overpadded men tackling each other and inviting concussions. And there, in my DVD collection, I found the perfect thing: Chantal Akerman’s highly regarded 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
The title is a mouthful, which seems appropriate for a 201-minute film in which very, very little happens. It’s widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, but I’d had trouble finding the right moment to watch it. I’m a huge Terrence Malick fan, so I certainly don’t need a lot of action to appreciate a movie. But still, I had trepidation about watching a film that I’d heard included a four-minute segment of a woman making meatloaf.
The meatloaf wasn’t he half of it. In fact, it’s only about 2% of the movie. In other segments, the protagonist makes veal cutlets, cleans the tub, fixes endless pots of coffee, shops for groceries, goes all over town looking for buttons for a coat, and slurps soup alongside her reticent teenage son.
And then, of course, she turns tricks.
But within minutes, I was riveted. Hypnotized, you might even say. Once you get used to the rhythm of the film, it’s fascinating.
This was the anti-Super Bowl: A woman-centered story about domestic chores and disappointments. No balls, no superheroes, no car crashes. It’s real life, the cinematic equivalent of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—the feminist version.
One thing I learned from studying formal poetry is that when the expected rhyme doesn’t appear, or a dactyl shows up where an iamb should be, something important is happening. So once you’ve seen Jeanne go through the rituals of her day, you become hyperaware of her routine. And when things start to slip, you know it.
It starts on day 2, when she overcooks the potatoes. For a woman with OCD, that’s a big deal. From that point on, she spirals slowly down.
It’s a quiet film—no score, very little dialogue. Mostly, you hear Jeanne’s footsteps as she moves from room to room, dishes clattering in the sink, pot lids coming off and on. So when she dropped a shoe brush, I jumped in my seat. It might as well have been the shark leaping out of the water in Jaws.
Plot is not the driving force behind this film, but still I won’t spoil it for you by discussing the ending. Suffice it to say that finally, something very dramatic happens—but it happens without altering the tone of the film, and it ends up feeling inevitable, confirming the purpose of all the quotidian stuff that has come before.
It’s a difficult film to watch, and probably will appeal only to a small clutch of cinephiles, but Jeanne Dielman deserves its reputation. It’s unique, beautifully filmed, and yes, pretty close to a masterpiece.
This morning, as I fixed breakfast, fed the cats, and got the laundry started, I couldn’t help imagining myself in a cluttered apartment in Brussels, running out of potatoes.
Now, onto next week and the Gay Super Bowl. But I’m under no illusions: Jeanne Dielman was completely overlooked at the 1975 Oscars. The show may be devoted to cinema, but when it comes to rewarding films as good as this one, the Academy might as well be wearing helmets and running on Astroturf.