Every ten years the British Film Institute’s (BFI) in-house magazine, Sight and Sound, polls a large number of critics and film-writers to produce a list of the greatest films of all time.
The number one slot is usually given to a predictable, established classic like Citizen Kane (five times) or Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But in a welcome surprise, 2022’s poll was topped instead by a three-and-a-half-hour Belgian film, directed by a woman. Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, follows in obsessive (some would say excruciating) detail, the gestures and rituals of a housewife and single mother, the eponymous Jeanne Dielman.
Jeanne Dielman did not come completely out of nowhere to win – it placed 36th in 2012 and 73rd in 2002. In 2002, it was the only film directed by a woman to feature. Thankfully, this year there are 11 in the top 100. Ten years earlier it was the only female-directed film to receive any votes at all.
Much of Jeanne Dielman’s long running-time is devoted to showing in rich detail the everyday routine of the widow and her son. She cooks, cleans and in the afternoons undertakes a little sex work to pay the bills. Her sex work is, however, mostly inferred from the nature of her brief exchanges with the men who come to her apartment. Men are greeted and leave and until the last explosive 15 minutes of the film, we do not see sex work at all.
There is a tendency to focus on these last 15 minutes in outlining the plot of the film. It’s often described as following the life of a lonely widow who turns to prostitution and whose life changes when she kills one of her clients. You could see how this might make the film seem like a sensationalist, tabloid thriller. However, the film mostly dwells on the quiet intricacies of Jeanne’s life.
It could be seen as an example of “slow cinema”. This genre of film revels in long takes and favours periods of silence over extended dialogue. For these traits, Jeanne Dielman has a reputation as a difficult watch. However, it is not a film in which nothing happens.
For aficionados of slow cinema, Jeanne Dielman’s climactic drama can sometimes seem like a betrayal, a concession to stereotypes and filmic expectations. I don’t see it that way.
Rather, Akerman’s mission is to show how dramas do not explode upon us unheralded, but bubble up and burst from the simmering banality of everyday life. At the end of the film, after a climactic moment involving crime and sex work, Jeanne is once again returned to the monotony of her everyday life. If we have to assume that she has forever disrupted the routine we have watched her live in, our last few minutes with her are spent simply existing, in a hiatus which is all her own before events start to move again.
Astonishing though it may seem, given that Jeanne Dielman is a film about a woman in whom maturity is accompanied by disappointment, Chantal Akerman was only 25 years old when she made it – and it was only the second feature film she directed.
Her first, Je tu il elle (I you he she, 1974) attracted some attention for its iconoclasm. Filmed in black and white, Je tu il elle presents the solitary desperation of a young woman, played by the director herself, who has retreated to her room after the end of her lesbian love affair. It marked Akerman as a new director to watch, with a distinctive female point of view and a daring approach to image-making.
Jeanne Dielman, however, made much larger waves internationally, from the moment of its appearance at the Cannes film festival. Nobody had seen anything like it before. It was heralded as a breakthrough by feminist critics, especially in the US. The fact that its star, Delphine Seyrig (a much more established figure than Akerman, was known as a high-profile feminist activist), supported this interpretation of the film.
Akerman is on record as being more hesitant. “I never wanted to make the film in a militant spirit,” she told French writer Paule Lejeune in 1987. “It was conceived as about the emotional relationship to the mother and the occupation of time and space.” In later interviews, she has spoken about the film specifically as a response to her own adolescence in a Jewish family in Brussels.
The fact remains that the overriding impression that comes from watching Jeanne Dielman is one of the minutiae of a specifically female life. Delphine Seyrig executes the small, inevitable tasks associated with running a modest household, with the perfect timing that comes from body memory: for instance, a slight twist of the hips to push back a chair at the same time as she deposits her son’s newly cleaned shoes on a shelf, instinctively executed as it is every day.
Jeanne’s interaction with her environment becomes a kind of dance, sometimes weary, sometimes joyous. The assurance with which she breads veal for dinner carries an almost jazzy swing. The story of the film, however, is one of the disintegration of that instinctive mastery.
For whatever reason, doubt is creeping in and that doubt betrays itself in tiny errors of coordination, miscalculations and moments of dead time. The audience, living at the rhythm of the character’s life, even to the movement of her breathing at times, is urged to share her growing unease in a physical sense.
There is no doubt that watching Jeanne Dielman is an unsettling experience. One needs to know what’s in store and be prepared to surrender control for the three hours and 26 minutes that it takes. But if the Sight and Sound poll brings a new audience to the challenging films of Chantal Akerman that will be an achievement to make its existence worthwhile. If you like it, you might also watch her other film in the poll (ranked 52), News From Home, a poetic essay on homesickness and New York.