Classic Movie Review: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter J

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Release Date: May 14, 1975
Director: Chantal Akerman
Production Company: Paradise Films | Unité Trois

I believe this is the first Belgian film I have ever watched.  The 3 hour, 21 minute film details the life of a woman, Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), go through the ordinary routine of her life in minute detail over a period of three days. Jeanne cleans the house, cooks, bathes, goes shopping, babysits, spends time with her teenage son (Jan Decorte), runs errands, and receives men in her bedroom who pay her for sex.  Sometimes she also sits in a chair for a long time as well. She is so very precise about everything she does that when little things start to go wrong it is very jarring. This film is the slowest of burns all leading to … something I won’t say.

The film adopts the style of Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring), where the camera remains stationary throughout and there are only cuts between scenes. With a woman director, Chantal Akerman, and a crew made up mostly of women, the film is a feminist statement on the invisibility of women’s work in movies (and in real life).  The film provokes a lot of questions, such as does it matter if a movie is technically brilliant and innovative if it ends up being extremely boring? Or, it there art in the verisimilitude of life, or should art transcend ordinary life?

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Sátántangó (1994)

Title: Sátántangó
Release Date: 8 February 1994
Director: Béla Tarr
Production Company: Mozgókép Innovációs Társulás és Alapítvány | Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion (VVF) | Vega Film | Magyar Televízió | Télévision Suisse-Romande (TSR)

Sátántangó is an epic Hungarian film set at the fall of communism that depicts a series of events that occur when the charismatic Irimiás (Mihály Vig), who had been believed dead, returns to an isolated village.  It also 7 hours and 19 minutes long. The movie consists of 12 parts and is structured like a tango, 6 moves forward and 6 back.  Director Béla Tarr wanted his audience to view the film in entirety with no intermission, but there was no way I was going to do that.  So I turned it into a Netflix series, watching one segment per day over twelve days. I expect that people will hate that I watched the movie this way, but I don’t care.

The film is famed for being made up of various long takes including impressive tracking shots such as the opening sequence when a herd of cows walk through the mud in a desolate village.  There are also long shots where the camera rests on an empty space with no action, a still life of sorts, until at last a person moves into the frame.  This could be considered padding to make up the movie’s length, but I find that the focus on the ordinary, combined with the frequent absence of music and minimal dialogue, make it so you focus on and absorb the mundane details.

One of Sátántangó‘s most notorious sequences depicts an abused child, Estike (Erika Bók), finding a way to find some control over something in her life by torturing and poisoning her cat.  I had to skip ahead through some of this segment, because animal abuse, even when it’s simulated is not something I can bear to watch.  There are also some funny parts of the film, including a gathering in the local bar where the villagers dance sloppily to accordion music while one man walks around with a cheese roll balanced on his forehead.  But most of this film is pretty bleak, and there are many, many, many long shots of people and groups walking down long, muddy roads for extended periods of time.

This movie is universally held in high-regard, and I cannot deny the brilliance of the filmmaking and ambition behind this movie. I suppose anything I’d have to say about why I don’t like it would sound gauche.  So I’ll just say that I feel like this movie should be shown at an art museum, projected on a large wall of an otherwise empty room.  People can wander in and out and experience the film for as long as they like. It’s clearly a work of art.

If you’d like to know what it is like to watch Sátántangó in a single sitting in a cinema experience, you can watch this humorous video I found:

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Mirror (1975)

Release Date: March 7, 1975
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm

This film through a nonlinear narrative structure examines the life of a dying man by way of his memories. The man, Alexei (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) does not appear on screen but we hear his voice and see him as a child in the 1930s (Filipp Yankovsky) and a young teenager during World War II (Ignat Daniltsev).  The film intercuts vignettes of memories from before and during the war with more recent memories as various images, dreams, and newsreel-style footage.

The film is held together by Margarita Terekhova who plays Alexei’s mother in his memories as well as is ex-wife in the present day scenes. Terekhova does a remarkable acting job, especially as the camera remains on her most of the time even when off-screen characters and the narrator are doing the speaking. The film contains some remarkably beautiful shots and impressive camera work.  I can see this movie being studied at film schools.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Blowup (1966)

Title: Blowup
Release Date: December 18, 1966
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Years ago I read Lights Out For the Territory, a series of essays about walking around London by Iain Sinclair.  He mention Blowup as a significant London film in that book so I was happy to finally seeing this movie.  It does capture “Swinging London” of the mid-60s, and like La Dolce Vita does for Rome, it shows a city in transition.  As the protagonist, Thomas (David Hemmings), drives through London in his sportscar, he passes by rows of buildings that don’t look like they’ve been updated since the Edwardian period, and then passes modernists apartment blocks that look like they’ve just been dropped in from outer space.

Unfortunately, this movie is also like La Dolce Vita in that it’s protagonist is completely loathsome, a photographer who is cruel to the models who pose for him, a sexual aggressor, and just all-around unlikable bloke.  Michelangelo Antonioni came from Italy to make his first English-language film with the continental flair for celebrating “La Dudebro.”  Curiously, this movie, with it’s frank depictions of sexuality and nudity, became a hit in the USA and helped bring about the demise of the Production Code.

The central plot of the movie is about Thomas taking pictures of a couple kissing in the park.  The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) pursues Thomas to try to retrieve the film and destroy it, which includes her taking off her top for Thomas (because of course woman do that very thing in a world where the dudebro is hero).  Thomas keeps the film, though, and when developing the pictures he notices a man with a gun and an apparently dead body in the bushes.  He blows-up his prints repeatedly to find clues in the grainy detail (hence the film’s title).

The film is classified as a mystery or a thriller, but I believe it is neither. The whole photography/blow up/mystery part only happens after an hour of a day-in-a-life of Thomas being a total dick.  The mystery of the photos is something that engages him temporarily from the ennui he’s suffering, but even then he allows himself to be distracted twice (first by having sex with two young women and then by attending a druggy party) instead of, you know, calling in the police. The movie is more a meditation on inaction and the perception of reality which unfortunately is built around a total asshole.

As much as I disliked most of the movie, the final scene is actually brilliant.  Thomas returns to the park to photograph the dead body (spoiler: it’s gone). Then a troop of pranksters arrive and begin pantomiming playing a game of tennis.  The easily-distracted Thomas becomes absorbed in watching the “game” (and to be fair, these are really excellent mimes) and even goes to fetch the “ball” when it flies over the fence.  The camera work following the non-existent ball really helps make the viewer sense that a ball is really there.  If only the rest of the movie were as weird and whistful as this final scene, I would like it so much more.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: La Dolce Vita (1960)

Title: La Dolce Vita
Release Date: February 5, 1960
Director: Federico Fellini
Production Company: Riama Film | Pathé Consortium Cinéma | Gray Films

As I’ve been going through the Classic Movies project, there have been movies I haven’t enjoyed but always got a sense of why they’re considered classics.  That is until a got to La Dolce Vita, a movie I struggled to watch because it seems to me to be a 3-hour slog of self-indulgence built around a character with no redeeming qualities.  That character is Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a celebrity gossip writer living “the sweet life” rubbing shoulders with the cafe society, all the while being amoral, lecherous, and abusive.

The movie does not have a traditional plot but is more of a series of vignettes from Marcello’s life. Some critics break it down into a significant series of seven nights and seven dawns, while others say the numerology is not important.  For me, it was a challenge to just see Marcello being awful again and again.

In these vignettes, we see Marcello:

  • meet a wealthy woman, Maddalenna (Anouk Aimee), and take her to the flooded apartment of a prostitute where they presumably make love.
  • discover that his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) has attempted suicide and drive her to hospital, and then attempt to call Maddalenna.
  • welcome the famed Swedish actress who has made it big in Hollywood, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and follow her as she climbs the dome of St. Peter’s and has a party.  Eventually the two end up in the Trevi Fountain, when the “magic” is broken by the sunrise.  (The scenes of Sylvia wandering the narrow streets of Rome with a stray kitten on her head are some of my favorite in the movie).
  • cover the media circus around an alleged sighting of the Madonna by two children, that ends with people trampled to death.
  • attend a party at the home of his intellectual friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny), and have a philosophical conversation.
  • take his father (Annibale Ninchi) out nightclubbing and have him go home with a dancer (only to seemingly suffer a heart attack).
  • attend another party thrown by aristocrats at a castle where he meets Maddalenna again.  She speaks to him from another room through an echo chamber and he all but promises to marry her as she makes out with another man.
  • gets in a fight in the car with Emma, hits her, and abandons her on a roadside.
  • gets called in when Steiner murders his children and kills himself and his to notify Steiner’s wife as his photographer friends swarm around.
  • goes to yet another party where he tries to turn it into an “orgy” and humiliates some drunken women.

Rome has changed quite a bit in the 15 years since Rome, Open City, and much of this movie is filmed in newly constructed, modernist apartment blocks and public buildings.  The rubble of the war is replaced by the rubble of construction sites.  A theme of the movie is clearly the hollowness of modernity and the excess of the post war boom.  Cinematically, La Dolce Vita is full of ingenious shots and great moments.  I just wish it didn’t require spending so much time with such awful people.

The good news is that I have this extremely catchy tune, “Patricia,” stuck in my head.


Rating: **1/2