Jeanne Dielman: Film Review

Standard

jeannedielman

This review won a writing competition run by The University of Edinburgh, the French Film Festival UK and the Belgian Tourist Office Brussels & Wallonia. The prize is a trip to the Namur International French-language Film Festival 2013 (transport, accommodation and a Festival Film Pass included):

http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/literatures-languages-cultures/delc/french/research-projects/centre-de-recherches-francophones/chantal-akerman-winners

A Paradoxical Masterpiece

Never before had I witnessed an audience collectively gasp at a dropped spoon. Not until I watched Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a 3 hour 20 minute cinematic marathon that slowly swells with so much tension that the smallest motion can elicit a shocked response.

Jeanne Dielman is a beautiful 40-something widow who moves around her Belgian apartment accomplishing the daily domestic tasks of shopping, cooking, cleaning, sleeping with men for money, dusting… Yes, amidst all those mundane housewifely pursuits, Jeanne Dielman works as a prostitute.

The film covers three days in Jeanne’s life. To begin with, her actions are precise and economical. She prepares the evening meal, entertains a client, guides him out of the apartment and returns to the bedroom. She throws a towel (laid on the bed for the occasion) in the laundry basket and bathes in a methodical fashion. She then washes the bath and returns to the dinner that has been slowly cooking on the stove.

By this stage, our expectations of a film are already being dismantled. Akerman makes no attempt to cut out the boring bits. Events are filmed in real time so that the audience participates in the monotony and silent strain that Jeanne is experiencing. When Jeanne and her son consume a bowl of soup we witness every spoonful being sipped. When Jeanne peels a bag of potatoes we witness every flick of the peeler. The vast majority of shots are framed by the apartment walls, giving the film a claustrophobic feel from the start. The static camera and head-on shots add to this closed-in feeling, the lack of movement reflecting the stagnation of Jeanne’s life.

Jeanne’s control of her domain is evident in the way she switches lights on and off depending on which room she is in. This could be a matter of economy, a theory corroborated later when we watch her fill out a list of the products she has just purchased in a ledger, consulting her receipts as she writes. She buttons every button of her dressing-gown, makes sure her hair is perfectly coiffed and wakes up before her alarm rings. She won’t allow her son to read at the table and insists they take a walk around the block each evening after dinner. Everything is measured and scheduled to within an inch of its life.

Slowly, over the course of the next two days, Jeanne’s meticulously woven life begins to unravel. Her son tries to engage her in an unsettling conversation about sex; a client stays longer than expected, causing her to burn the potatoes; she misses a button of her dressing-gown; her hair becomes tousled; she drops a shoe polish brush; she lets the coffee go bad; she drops a spoon; the child she babysits won’t stop crying; she leaves lights on. Each of these is insignificant in itself, but seen accumulatively they stand as ominous portents of Jeanne’s mental collapse.

When Jeanne wakes up too early one morning, she finishes her daily tasks too soon and slumps into motionless silence. It’s clear that she has timetabled every hour of her day because, if she does not, she will sink into an uncontrollable depression.

Later, when a client brings her to orgasm, something in her mind snaps.  Her last point of control – withholding her own pleasure, refusing to surrender to male power over her body – has been broken. She slowly dresses herself, takes a pair of scissors from the dressing-table and plunges them into the man’s neck. We then watch as she sits at her living-room table, the blue lights of the street-signs outside flashing in the darkening room. Five minutes of this pass and the film ends. The release and relief the audience feels is palpable.

By crafting a film comprised of large segments of thoroughly mundane domestic episodes leading up to this startling resolution, Akerman creates a work that is both strangely tedious and utterly mesmerising. The result is a paradoxical masterpiece.

Advertisements

Tailbone

Standard

inkwell

This poem was first published in ‘The Inkwell’ Issue VI, The University of Edinburgh’s creative writing magazine (Ed. Vickie Madden)

 

Tailbone

 

Drunk and in the dark she slips.

She is numb but she knows

that something has gone wrong

near the base of her back.

 

You’ve fractured an inoperable bone,

says the nurse.  There’s no plaster cast

for this one – you’ll have to wait it out.

 

A month had passed since the festival.

They had sat, chin to knee,

on the dirty floor of some humid tent,

beer cups crushed beneath them,

her whole world collapsing outside.

 

Days passed in desperation.

Curled on the carpet, no location left

untouched by memories.

Dreams infiltrated, words cruel as bullets

lodged too deep to retract.

 

And now there is another fracture,

one more invisible break within her body.

A gulf quite near the start of her spine,

a hairline smarting at the end.

 

Not one bruise between them.

The Hollow Crown (Mini Review)

Standard

hollow crown

This mini-review was first published in The Student, The University of Edinburgh’s student-run newspaper (Tuesday 4th December 2012)

The Hollow Crown, BBC2, June-July 2012

*****

The BBC went Shakespeare-daft earlier this year, devoting a whole season to the Bard and his creations. The high-point of this was The Hollow Crown, the collected adaptations of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. The plots are juicy, the costumes and set-designs are sumptuous, and the often tricky language is brought to life by a world-class ensemble. With star turns from Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons, supported by the likes of Patrick Stewart and Julie Walters, special mention must be given to Simon Russell-Beales’s gloriously debauched Falstaff. By turns uproariously funny and heart-wrenchingly moving, his is a gem of a performance; the jewel in The Hollow Crown, if you will.

Peep Show Review

Standard

peep show

This review was originally published in The Student, The University of Edinburgh’s student-run newspaper (Tuesday 4th December 2012)

Peep Show, Channel 4, Sunday 10pm

***

When Peep Show first aired in 2003 it was bold, imaginative and highly original. Its use of point-of-view shots (with the camera actually strapped to the actors’ heads), alongside the fact that the audience could listen in to the characters’ thoughts, was unlike anything that had been done before. The writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, were relatively unknown, as were its stars, David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Everything felt new and exciting.

Now onto its eighth series, it’s business as usual as we continue to follow the mundane/ludicrous lives of repressed, middle-class Mark (Mitchell) and perennial slacker Jeremy (Webb). When Mark asks his girlfriend Dobby to move in with him it means Jeremy must vacate the premises. Pathologically lazy Jeremy is, of course, dragging his heels, whilst Mark is terrified that Dobby will choose to move in with his rival, the sickly (and milking-it) Gerrard.

There are some wonderfully funny moments. Mark, riddled with anxieties prior to a job interview, rehearses his introduction to interviewer Robert Grayson so many times that when he eventually enters the room he holds out his hand and says ‘Hello, I’m Robert Grayson’; excruciating stuff, and classic Mark. Jeremy attempting to eat his way through an enormous portion of curry, having just secretly consumed another, is classic Jeremy.

Mark’s old boss, smooth-talking lothario Alan Johnson, including the phrase ‘the great little guy in this big old box here’ during a funeral speech is classic Johnson, and everything that crack-enthusiast-turned-bathroom-salesman Super Hans says is classic Super Hans. This character, played by Matt King, is a particularly brilliant comedic creation, especially when he’s as high as a kite; let’s hope he returns to the crack he finds so incredibly ‘moreish’ soon.

The trouble is, although it’s still extremely well-written, it’s just not fresh anymore.  Perhaps the reason why certain British comedies (from Fawlty Towers to The Office) have gained cult status is that they burned brightly but briefly. Isn’t it always better to leave a party early, when people are asking you to stay and have another drink, rather than when the music’s stopped and the host is pointedly putting empty cups in a bin-liner?

Ratings suggest that people are happy to keep the party going, but speaking as a huge fan of the show I’m not so sure. The recently-aired second series of the excellent Fresh Meat, also penned by Armstrong and Bain, has been a well-deserved hit and feels as exciting as Peep Show once did. Might it be time for the older show to grab its coat and leave while the music’s still playing? It’s been one hell of a party.