• A Matter of Time:
    Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce,
    1080 Bruxelles

    By Ivone Margulies

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    Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, a mesmerizing study of stasis and containment, time and domestic anxiety. Stretching its title character’s daily household routine in long, stark takes, Akerman’s film simultaneously allows viewers to experience the materiality of cinema, its literal duration, and gives concrete meaning to a woman’s work. We watch, for three hours and twenty-one minutes, as Jeanne cooks, takes a bath, has dinner with her adolescent son, shops for groceries, and looks for a missing button. Each gesture and sound becomes imprinted in our mind, and as we are lulled by familiar rhythms and expected behavior, we become complicit with Jeanne’s desire for order. The perfect parity between Jeanne’s predictable schedule and Akerman’s minimalist precision deflects our attention from the fleeting signs of Jeanne’s afternoon prostitution. They nevertheless loom at the edge of our mind, gradually building unease. Jeanne Dielman constitutes a radical experiment with being undramatic, and paradoxically with the absolute necessity of drama.

    Made in 1975, when the artist was only twenty-five years old, the film upped the ante on neorealism’s mandate of “social attention.” Akerman’s real-time, matter-of-fact presentation of a woman’s everyday seemed to mock the timidity of the neorealist demand for “a ninety-minute film showing the life of a man to whom nothing happens.” In postwar film and video, banal kitchen scenes (in Umberto D., 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Semiotics of the Kitchen) are signs of an inclusive realism, a new politicized energy. Akerman’s “images between images,” those scenes neglected in conventional representation, gave this impulse a strong feminist accent. But more than a corrective to traditional cinema, Jeanne Dielman is a lesson in structural economy: the full visibility given to daily tasks exacts, as its cost, the more sensational scenes of Jeanne’s prostitution. These encounters last the time it takes to cook dinner.

    Akerman told an interviewer that one night, after having worked on her script for some time, she “saw” the entire film in its “final” form. She then decided to eliminate subplots and subsidiary characters, focusing intensely on Jeanne in her apartment. Aunt Fernande, Jeanne’s sister, living in Canada, only appears in the form of a letter, read in litanylike monotone by Jeanne to her son; the neighbor, heard by the door (and played by Akerman herself), describes how, shopping for her husband’s dinner, and still undecided, she ended up getting the same expensive cut of meat as the person in front of her on line. Never casual, each of the film’s uniquely strange and long-winded monologues expresses some form of gendered pressure: they refer to Jeanne’s marriage, the son’s Oedipal thoughts, each breathing a sexual anxiety, each a drawn-out, wordy attempt to mitigate the “other scene” we never see, the elided afternoon trysts.

    These were impressively mature themes and stylistic strategies for such a young director, and it was not the first time she had worked with them. The entropic contamination of domesticity and tragedy, order and disorder, was a central Akerman idea from her very first film, Saute ma ville (1968), in which a deadpan, eighteen-year-old Akerman herself performs in a tight kitchen space, cleaning, making a mess, cooking, sealing the door and window—a compressed, chaotic Jeanne Dielman and a precocious, explosive debut. Born in Belgium in 1950, of Jewish parents who left Poland to escape Nazism, Akerman was an autodidact who quickly abandoned film school and worked selling diamond shares on the Antwerp stock exchange to raise money to make Saute ma ville. New York, where she lived from 1971 to 1972, was a formative experience. She frequented Anthology Film Archives, was exposed to minimalist dance, Andy Warhol’s long-duration films, Jonas Mekas’s diary films, and other structural filmmakers. She has mentioned being particularly impressed with Michael Snow’s La région centrale, a film whose random camera movements over a humanless landscape “opened [my] mind to the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film.” In 1972, while in New York, she initiated her long collaboration with the brilliant cinematographer Babette Mangolte, with whom she made La chambre (1972), Hôtel Monterey (1972), Hanging Out Yonkers (1973), and News from Home (1977). In these films, Akerman’s fixed camera provokes unexpected performances. In La chambre, the camera makes a 360-degree pan around a small studio, meeting with equal interest a chair, a bed, Chantal eating an apple, rocking under the covers. Under the camera’s long stare, even the empty corridor in Hôtel Monterey starts to “perform”—it will be seen in depth as a corridor, or in foreground as a surface of lines and masses. A room with a door ajar lets us see a pregnant woman sitting, hinting at a story. What Akerman learned from Hôtel Monterey was that the shot duration changes the equation between the concrete and the abstract, between drama and descriptive detail.

    Her narrative films apply this structuralist lesson, fashioning expectation out of a series of real-time, nondramatic shots. In terms of performance, she is indebted to Bresson’s flat models and Dreyer’s nonpsychological austerity: her characters speak in recitative monologues intercut by long silences. Channeling the memory of chants heard at the synagogue into her modernist art, Akerman has said that what “interests me in dialogue is that it rounds up with rhythm, a psalmody where the sentences don’t make sense.” Infused with her fondness for rituals—domestic, Jewish—her lines accrue meaning nevertheless.

    Akerman met her actress for Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig (the star of Last Year at Marienbad, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and India Song), in 1974, at the Nancy Theatre Festival, where Hôtel Monterey was being shown. That same year, she made Je, tu, il, elle, a film that importantly precedes Jeanne Dielman’s provocative crossing of the line between literal and acted scenes. Akerman boldly decided to appear in this film, using her own malaise to cut against what she felt was her overrigid form. Closer to performance art than to cinema, her obsessive gestures corrode the lines between acting, living, and creating. The film ends with an explicit yet stylized sex scene between two women. Amplified sounds and high-definition images would become a trademark of Akerman’s starkly presentational mise-en-scène (she shares with fellow seventies directors Fassbinder and Oshima a frontal, heightened approach to filming bodies).

    In Jeanne Dielman, the camera is fixed and low (matching the filmmaker’s short height), and the frame composition is frontal and symmetrical. Akerman does not use close-ups, reverse angles, or point-of-view shots. She avoids cutting “this woman in pieces” and is “never voyeuristic,” she has explained, addressing the more feminist aspects of her project; one “always knows where I am.” Mangolte’s precise re-creation of light traversing an apartment through the day, and Seyrig’s contained portrayal, complement the director’s formal clarity.

    Almost classical in its construction, Jeanne Dielman works like a time bomb. The Flemish color palette of Akerman’s interiors, the linearity of the story, with the first-, second-, and third-day intertitles, all work to associate her with the mild disjunctions of European art cinema. And yet the acuity and amplified concreteness of her images creates a visible instability: as the shot goes on, the viewer becomes aware of his/her own body, restless and then again interested. After “reading” the image of a woman washing dishes, one’s attention starts to wander to tiles, to colors, to a rag.

    This perceptual oscillation adds to the film’s pervasive disquiet. Jeanne’s need for control, exemplified by her fixed schedule and menu, covers an anxious dread of autonomy, with clear sexual undertones. In its structural delineation of a link between two prescribed female roles—domestic and sexual, the mother and the whore—the film engages broadly with a feminist problematic, one that takes into account also a woman’s alienation, her labor, and her dormant violence. Jeanne’s son, for instance, the only “man” in the house besides her clients, expects to be served and controls his mother: “You missed a button,” he says at one point. And yet Akerman’s unerring sensibility for behavior pushes the film beyond a thesislike statement. When Jeanne sits on the mustard armchair, not knowing how to fill up her time, the anxiety is palpable. She briefly touches her chest, her heart. She compulsively, thriftily turns off lights before leaving a room, and with this simple gesture she separates one domestic space from the other, kitchen from bedroom. It is with this delicate attention to detail, in the restricted sphere of a woman’s domain (the address announced in the title), that Akerman tells her tale about displaced sexuality.

    What is familiar and domestic, the film reveals as strange. In public appearances, the filmmaker has often discarded any direct equation of Jeanne’s quotidian chores with “a woman’s repression under patriarchy,” explaining that these were the loving gestures she was familiar with as she observed intently her mother and aunt making a bed, preparing food. Despite this statement, protective of her own familiar memories, in the film Akerman insists on a haunting contamination of scene by ob-scene.

    Halfway into the film, at the end of the second day, when we have become used to Jeanne’s (and Akerman’s) routine, something happens. Perhaps it is when Jeanne places the money the john gave her into the tureen and forgets to cover it with the lid. At any rate, some spectators might notice Jeanne’s disheveled hair, while others might notice, as she does, that the potatoes have overcooked. We see Jeanne from the kitchen as she appears by its door, and this first shift in the camera’s habitual position announces the character’s unraveling. In one of the funniest choreographies ever of domestic terror, Jeanne carries the pot around the house, not knowing what to do with this evidence of mistiming. In a didactic exposure of the fragility of order, Akerman’s frame remains the same when a fork falls, dishes remain unwashed, and a shoe brush drops. No cutaway or musical score highlights the disturbance. This intrusion of objects “moving on their own” gives plastic shape to the unwelcome, recurring thoughts that Jeanne, an obsessive-compulsive, attempts to suppress. Time is clearly the culprit. See the wonderful scene in which Jeanne’s coffee tastes bad. She will try all possible remedies: She changes the milk, and even caps the process with a ritual of symmetry, combining two lumps of sugar into a rectangle. She pours the coffee into the Melitta filter and waits. Still, shaped like an irreversible hourglass, the filter will not correct what has gone wrong.

    Jeanne Dielman’s double ending represents the link between containment and excess, between sexual repression and violence. With impeccable narrative logic, we see for the first time what has been kept offscreen. After having an orgasm with a client, Jeanne gets dressed, tucks her shirt into her skirt, picks up a pair of scissors, and stabs the man. With this downplayed “climax,” Akerman equates the banal and the dramatic, the literal and the fictional—dressing and killing. “When she bangs the glass on the table and you think the milk might spill, that’s as dramatic as the murder,” stated Akerman. The film’s last seven minutes show Jeanne sitting at the dinner table, a flickering neon light striating her face. This unforgettable image of the character/the actress breathing, simply existing, resumes the filmmaker’s contract with her character’s desire for stasis.

    When it came out, Jeanne Dielman was fully in tune with the European women’s movement—“Peeling Potatoes” was one of the articles in an issue of Les temps modernes edited by Simone de Beauvoir, and in Belgium the working rights of prostitutes were the subject of lively debate. The film’s rigorous alignment of sexual/gender politics with a formal economy—showing cooking and hiding sex—was hailed by feminist critics as an impressive alternative to well-intentioned but conventional political documentaries and features. And many in the avant-garde felt vindicated that this narrative topically addressing women’s issues was so plainly indebted to pure experiments with duration and series. Akerman’s representation of a concrete, defamiliarized everyday was a defining feat.

    Despite their apparent simplicity, Akerman’s assured framing and narrative, built out of blocks of real time intercut by radical ellipses, are not easily replicated. Rather, the film’s impact is indirectly evident in the emergence of a new phenomenological sensibility and approach to observation and the weight of time in the work of contemporary filmmakers as diverse as Abbas Kiarostami, Gus van Sant, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Todd Haynes, Jia Zhangke, and Tsai Ming-liang.

    After Jeanne Dielman, Akerman has said, she felt she had to escape her own mastery, to avoid repeating herself. In the eighties, as a natural outgrowth of her interest in the rhythm of gesture and dialogue, she turned to farces, musicals, and comedies as pretexts for more exuberant and fast-paced tempos: Toute une nuit (1982), The Eighties (1983), I’m Hungry, I’m Cold (1984), Window Shopping (1986), Night and Day (1991). Her unclassifiable narratives News from Home and American Stories: Food, Family and Philosophy (1988) layer minor literary forms—her mother’s letters, immigrant letters, Jewish jokes—over a redesigned promised land, New York. Still other films haunt us with their characters’ opaque resistance to being possessed or pinned down. In two of her features, Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) and La captive (2000), the female protagonists express their singularity by their amateur, “out-of-tune” singing. Across a wide range of modes and media, Akerman’s most remarkable gift lies in her work’s elastic and transformative temporality: an overextended scene turns boredom into obstinate passion; watched for long enough, her documentary landscapes yield uncanny feelings of déjà vu; compressed and rhythmic, her language turns in on itself, funny, musical; everyday gestures are redesigned, attaining a ceremonial, memorable intensity.

    We get a glimpse of the quality of Akerman’s attentiveness and patience in Autour de “Jeanne Dielman,” a behind-the-scenes video by actor Sami Frey. Seyrig discusses her character’s feelings with Akerman, who firmly insists she does not want a performance based on psychology. Brushing one’s hair, making a meat loaf, and anxiety are all submitted to Akerman’s detailed script and exacting vision. Small and precise movements are the norm. Mangolte suggests the camera stay on the “empty scene” so that Jeanne’s actions out of frame—going to check the time, placing something in the refrigerator—actually happen. Amid practical deliberations, such as how many eggs go into a meat loaf, the secret of Akerman’s timing is stunningly revealed in a simple rehearsal moment. Seyrig sits in profile by the kitchen table while Akerman, script and watch in hand, describes Jeanne’s moves. Seyrig follows the directions. “You wait for a minute, you stand up, go to the balcony, wait for twenty-five seconds, come back, pick up the broom, and sit back down. You skim the stock and sit.” Seyrig sits. Mirroring her, elbow at the table, Akerman sits and waits. For the longest minute, the director lets Seyrig and Jeanne’s time pass through her own body. It is this experience she relays to us, gently and surely.

    Ivone Margulies is the author of Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday. She teaches in the Film and Media Studies Department at Hunter College, City University of New York. A film scholar and critic, she writes on realism, performance, and theatricality in cinema.

18 comments

  • By Mitchell Stone
    August 31, 2009
    03:21 PM

    Your summation and comments are excellent but there are many ambiguities in the film that are maddening. I have watched the film twice and plan to watch it again soon. One scenario that I can't get to the bottom of is Jeanne's two nightly excursions with her son following dinner. Where do they go? The camera follows them into the street and then returning but what did they do? The other concerns the sex act prior to the murder: I thought Jeanne was experiencing an orgasm at first but her pulling away and discomfort seemed a stronger reaction. I was reminded of Polanski's "Repulsion". Perhaps her character was repulsed and experiencing pleasure simultaneously but I ultimately didn't think it looked like an orgasm. I also, on second viewing, became overwhelmed at not only her obsessive-compulsive behavior but the treatment of her son. He looks to be a high school or college age teen but her behavior seems to suggest a child of nine or ten. She literally performs actions for the boy, everything but eating his food for him. Also, why does she keep his clothes in her wardrobe? Why doesn't the boy have a room? We see the boy arrive home, eat, read a bit, and sleep. No other actions take place. His conversations before bedtime hint at an incestuous curiosity too. An astound and unique film, nonetheless. A classic of its kind.
    Reply
  • By East Bogata
    September 07, 2009
    09:54 PM

    I echo Mitchell's sentiments. I also wonder if Michael Haneke is a fan or influenced by Jeanne. I noticed similarities in deliberate pacing and studies in the mundane that run throughout his films, particularly "The Seventh Continent". Dielman also shares a droll sense of humor and uneasiness with "Eraserhead", "Repulsion", and "The Tenant" A great film that won't leave your head.
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  • By Sky Blue
    September 15, 2009
    04:23 PM

    It's Eraserhead for housewives! I even was reminded of Ira Levins' "Stepford Wives" while viewing. The scene with Jeanne and the baby towards the end was simply hilarious. The baby seems content until she picks it up and it immediately starts crying every time she go nears it. The scene reminded me of an opposite take on Eraserhead's Henry when the baby starts to cry every time he starts to leave his apartment.
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  • By Mitchell Stone
    September 16, 2009
    08:35 PM

    Some interesting thoughts since I posted. The Eraserhead and Stepford wives allusions are there for sure. That baby sequence is a hoot and the old lady in the post office/bank is another uneasy chuckle. I have watched Jeanne for a third time and reevaluated some of my thoughts. I do see clearly a progression from the second sex act to the startling end more clearly. It does seem that Jeanne does what she does to protect her routine rituals. An orgasm, though not shown, is experienced with her second customer leaving her disheveled and a general domino effect follows. I still think of Repulsion, Ms.45, and other psychological portrayals of females when I view it but clearly the classy Jeanne Dielman stands alone.
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  • By Lynn Curry
    September 18, 2009
    05:27 AM

    Delphine is extrordinary here. I was shocked to discover this is the same woman in Daughters of Darkness. I didn't make the connection until viewing the documentaries included in the Criterion release. Like the others posted, the ambiguous nature of her behavior can create a confusing fascination. Jeanne's "Johns" are all so creepy I had a hard time believing she would experience an orgasm with any of them! She does seem more repulsed than enjoying the sex in the last scene. The guy looks like deadweight or asleep lying on top of her throughout and at times it looks like she's trying to push him off and get up.
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  • By Avid
    November 14, 2009
    07:01 PM

    Yes, "where do they go?" I googled that phrase because that's the one thing I don't understand. Am so disappointed to hear that it is not answered (I have 30 minutes to go, but it is obvious she is coming undone.) Thanks Mitchell for voicing a googlified question.
    Reply
  • By Boudu Saved
    December 28, 2010
    06:55 PM

    I have a response to East Bogata. I think Michael Haneke would not be happy with the scissors being left behind on the dresser. When I saw that, I knew she would use it for something; whereas in Haneke's "Funny Games", we see a knife left on the boat...later in the film we think the victim will get a chance to use it, but the antagonists prevent the victim from doing so. That being said, I just finished Ackerman's film yesterday. It is the best film I have seen in many years for all the reasons many have you noted already. It may be considered a feminist masterpiece but I actually think of it as a humanist masterpiece. You don't have to be a woman to have lived your life with such routine that you become a robot in a lifeless life. And all the film techniques used by Ackerman, i.e. no camera movement, no soundtrack, no close-ups or zooms in or out, scenes playing in real time...over a long period of time, the monotone dialogue, what little there was, the on and off of lights, the blue light flickering in the house...all these made me appreciate the dullness and sucking of life the routine can have. This is why I was upset with the ending of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. You don't need fancy lights and editing to emphasize the drama of rape. It can happen in a well lit room without all those effects.
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  • By Dorothy Young Riess
    April 18, 2011
    03:49 PM

    Excellent review. I watched the film last night and was struck by the time-less-ness of the prolonged scenes and the symmetry of the camera angles. The mundane tasks that anyone who has ever managed a household must perform hit home at a gut level. "A woman's lot" whether imposed by strict society standards or by self is painfully apparent here. The daily drudgery finally beats her down.
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  • By Ellen
    April 21, 2011
    02:23 AM

    I watched this film on TCM a few nights ago. I had never heard of it prior to now. I struggled between the impulse to turn it off due to the mind numbing monotony, but that same robotic existence was also strangely compelling. My interpretation of the widow's behavior was that she was alone quite suddenly, obviously left to raise a narcissistic son without financial wherewithal. Given her predicament, she appeared to be severely depressed, and in deep grief. She was going through the motions of daily life, and the ritualistic behavior is common to states of situational anxiety and depression. It is strange that she turned to prostitution for economic support since she was obviously capable of more. It was almost as if she was punishing herself. There was obviously no joy in her life, and I suspect that many psychological explanations could be offered for her violent behavior at the end.
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  • By peter
    May 27, 2011
    06:26 PM

    Great article and some really incisive and perceptive comments--I wish I had such intelligent cinefile friends to discuss films with!--about a really fascinating piece of work. Hats of especially to Ellen, both for her Freudian analysis of Jeanne and the film's juxtaposition of being mind-numblingly slow and repetitive and incredibly compelling at the same time. The observations on subsequent filmmakers influenced by this movie are interesting and have some validity, yet this movie is so different from all of the works cited that, and I mean no disrespect, they seem off the mark. Unlike "Eraserhead", there's nothing surreal going on here; quite the opposite. Unlike "Stepford", there's not an ironic note in this movie. Unlike Haneke's "Funny Games" (but perhaps more like "The White Ribbon"), there's almost nothing dramatic going on here, other than the end of movie stabbing (and as an aside, I'm very intrigued by the whole discussion of exactly what preceded it and don't think that there's a definitive answer, and have also been going back and forth whether this act was in keeping with and consistent with the rest of the movie or strikes a false note). In many ways, I see more of this movie in "My Dinner with Andre" than any of those mentioned above. Finally, and maybe this is my male perspective, I agree with a couple of the commenters (and Akerman herself) that calling this move feminist is reductive; it's really humanist. I hadn't seen this website before but will check it out again.
    Reply
  • By Michael Galaboff
    August 03, 2011
    02:39 AM

    I have a theory regarding the trips that Jeanne and her son take in the evening on the first two nights. I suspect that they may be going to visit the grave of the deceased husband. This occurred to me when, before they leave for the second time, the son asks Jeanne, "Do we have to go tonight?" to which she replies "Yes, we're going." This makes me think that it is a nightly ritual. I could be wrong, but this is just a hunch.
    Reply
    • By Michael Bubb
      July 07, 2014
      10:27 AM

      I thought of that but under what circumstances do you visit a grave at night? I thought of the nightly excursions as being in line with the reciting of poetry and listening to music... some sort of evening lectures?
  • By Alec M.
    June 20, 2012
    12:42 AM

    Such a fantastic film and a great review to complement it. I love the pulsing blue light that shines insistently through the windows, it sets up the themes of rhythm and repetition wonderfully. And I agree with peter and Boudu's evaluation of the film as humanist; although there are some definite feminist undertones, Akerman is doing so much more here.
    Reply
  • By cosmin
    February 05, 2014
    03:59 PM

    i don t know how can you say it is a fantastic film. is extrem realism. if i want to see realism i watch people on streets. i love bella tarr movies which are long and very slow. but this film is much to long and much to empty.
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  • By Kristi Swayze
    June 30, 2014
    10:40 PM

    What a dreary waste of 3:20! The emperor has no clothes! The review contains unintelligible, meaningless mumbo-jumbo phrases that are the hallmark of a pathetic, drifting, arrogant soul with no faith and no fun in her life. The movie is the same. Don't waste your time on this outlandish, pompous excuse for a film. Yes, life can be sad, tragic and seem futile. But what's new? That's why people try to find some joy in the little things and develop a sense of humor, rather than sit in a dark room and watch the unbearably sad lives of characters on a screen. Why do that to yourself unless your eyes are forced open and you are being tortured!? I wanted to experience a Belgian film and boy, am I sorry it was this one. If you have never felt like killing yourself, you may, after watching this monumentally depressing saga.
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  • By Michael Bubb
    July 07, 2014
    10:25 AM

    Very nice essay. Adds to this film which caused my brain to overflow a bit. Somewhere else I saw it described as "longer than "Berlin Alexanderplatz" - which is true (but not in the negative way intended)". This sentence: She avoids cutting “this woman in pieces” and is “never voyeuristic,” she has explained, addressing the more feminist aspects of her project; one “always knows where I am.” This is generally true - except when she receives clients. She gets chopped off at the neck we see here torso and her hands in the gesture of receiving coat or money. Something about the pose and the headless torso that is disconcerting...
    Reply
  • By Michael Bubb
    July 07, 2014
    10:32 AM

    I am not sure why but the 'spoiled coffee' scene is really central. I went back to watch it later. She never drinks the coffee and then goes to the cafe and again doesnt drink the coffee... I love the scene of her making coffee. I think it is there that the whole trope of ritual makes sense. Somehow the coffee scene made me think of alchemy and Gaston Bachelard (Psychology of Fire, etc). What happens when coffee loses its taste. Also when she sits in the armchair that gesture where she reaches toward her pocket - made me think of a smoker who has quit...
    Reply
  • By Lois Weaver
    July 10, 2014
    12:54 PM

    I couldn't sleep and it was 2 a.m. I turned on TCM and began watching this movie. At first, it was so incredibly boring to me, I thought, "well, this movie will surely put me to sleep within 5 minutes." Soon, I was at my kitchen table, watching it, still, and trying to understand why I was compelled to continue viewing. I am at such a loss to understand why I was so determined to see the film to its conclusion. How did Acherman hold us so tightly, with that inexplicable sense of dread through out? Part of me condemns Jeanne for being so very rigid, and not seeing the world in a more possitive light. There are millions of us who live repetitive and disciplined lives, yet still enjoy ourselves and our surroundings. She is unable/unwilling to go forward after the death of her husband, and find peace and contentment for her tortured soul. I would love to know the back story of this character. Was she so different when her husband - whom she didn't love - was still alive? Was she happier? Somehow I doubt it. I, like one of your other commentors mentioned, wish to discuss this strangely engaging and unsettling film.
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