George Baker Selection – "Una Paloma Blanca" (1975)

Once I had my share of losing

Once they locked me on a chain

The British Film Institute recently asked no fewer than 1639 film critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics to list what they thought were the best movies of all time.  

Based on those ballots, the BFI put together a“100 Greatest Films of All Time” list, which ranked Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – a 1975 film directed by 25-year-old Chantal Akerman – the greatest movie ever.

Be honest.  You’ve never heard of Jeanne Dielman, much less seen it.

Jeanne Dielman preparing veal cutlets

I was right there with you until last week, when I checked out a DVD of Jeanne Dielman from my local public library and watched it over the course of two nights.  (The movie is over three hours long.)

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Jeanne Dielman – which is almost three and a half hours long – depicts three days in the life of its titular character, a middle-aged Belgian widow who lives with her teenaged son.

Here’s how critic Jayne Loader summarized the first hour of the film, which depicts one day in the life of Jeanne Dielman:

Jeanne gets up, puts on her dressing gown, and chooses her son’s clothes.  She lights a fire in his room, picks up his shoes and takes them to the kitchen, where she shines them, lights the stove, grinds the coffee beans and makes coffee.  She wakes her son; he eats while she dresses.   She says goodbye to him, and gives him money taken from a blue and white china crock on the dining table. 

She washes the dishes, makes her son's bed and folds it into a couch, makes her own bed and lays a towel over her coverlet.  She shops and runs errands, returns to her apartment, and begins to prepare dinner.  She sits with her neighbor's child, eats her lunch, and returns the baby to its mother.  

The doorbell rings.  She admits a man, takes his hat and coat, and leads him into the bedroom.  She leads him to the front door, gives him his hat and coat, and takes money from him, which she puts in the blue china crock.  She opens the window in her bedroom, puts the rumpled towel in the clothes hamper, bathes, cleans the tub, and dresses. 

She closes the bedroom window and takes dinner off the stove.  Her son comes home.  They eat dinner immediately: soup, meat and potatoes.  She tells him not to read while eating.  He puts his books away.  She clears the table and helps him with his homework.  She knits, and glances through the newspaper, until it is time for them to take their evening walk around the block.  They unfold his sofa bed.  He reads while she undresses.  She turns off the stove, kisses him, turns out the lights, and at last goes to sleep.

[NOTE: I think Jeanne Dielman puts a towel on top of her bed so she can service her client without worry about a wet spot staining her coverlet.  I presume she opens the window after he’s left to air out her bedroom so it doesn’t smell like sex.]

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Here’s how one critic very accurately describes Akerman’s directorial style:

No movie has so rigorously applied the fly-on-the-wall point-of-view to this extent.  Static cameras are set up at various locations around the apartment (and, on those occasions when Jeanne goes out, at fixed locations along her route) to record any action that occurs in front of them.  

Jeanne Dielman peeling potatoes

Traditional cinematography is entirely abandoned.  There are no establishing shots or close-ups.  At times, the images are of empty corridors or rooms, with sounds indicating something is happening off-camera. At no time do any of the cameras move.  

A cynic might remark that Akerman’s approach is to stick a camera on a tripod, point it at a room, wander off, and come back in 11 minutes.

Here’s what another critic said about the film:

Despite the widespread critical acclaim, Jeanne Dielman has never gained much traction outside of its niche audience in large part because it’s beyond a challenge to sit through.  Being fascinating and unique, two qualities unquestionably in evidence here, don’t automatically deserve praise and, because of the film’s high quotient of tediousness, I find it impossible to recommend to any but the most devoted of experimental art film lovers.  It works very well, however, as a cure for insomnia.

Click here to watch a four-and-a-half-minute shot of Jeanne Dielman preparing veal cutlets for dinner, which is a typical scene from the movie.  

As noted in the above description of the movie, the camera doesn’t move – it’s completely static.  Given that there is no one other than Jeanne in the shot, it’s not surprising that there is no dialogue.

I would guess that the entirety of the very sparse dialogue in Jeanne Dielman would take up no more than ten printed pages.

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Jeanne Dielman is sometimes described as an early feminist masterpiece.

But it seems to me that the movie could just as easily be about a male character – a Jean, not a Jeanne.

Imagine Jean Dielman waking up and getting out of bed, making coffee and eating a croissant while reading the morning newspaper, shaving and getting dressed, taking a streetcar to the office where he works as a bookkeeper, adding numbers with the help of an adding machine and entering the sums in a ledger, stopping at a bar near his office for a glass of beer at the end of the workday, going to a delicatessen and buying something to take home for dinner, eating while reading the evening paper, watching a sporting event on TV, brushing his teeth, and going to bed.

Jeanne Dielman drinking coffee

Maybe throw in a weekly visit to a discreet neighborhood prostitute – someone like Jeanne Dielman herself – and you’d have a movie that’s the male mirror image of Jeanne Dielman.

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“Una Paloma Blanca” (which means “a white dove” in Spanish) was recorded in 1975 by the George Baker Selection – whose 1969 hit, “Little Green Bag,” was prominently featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.   

The George Baker Selection is Dutch – not Belgian, like the titular character of Jeanne Dielman – but the record was a #1 hit in Belgium in 1975, which was the year that Jeanne Dielman was released.  That’s close enough for government work.

Click here to listen to “Paloma Blanca” by the George Baker Selection.

Click here to buy the song from Amazon.