Runtime: 201 minutes
Director: Chantal Akerman
Writer: Chantal Akerman
Stars: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte
By Calum Cooper
When Chantal Akerman’s feature, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975), topped the 2022 Sight and Sound Poll of the Greatest Films of All Time, it was a pleasant surprise to say the least. For a poll that often places the works of male Hollywood directors such as Hitchcock or Welles at the top, seeing a female-directed film with a heavily feminist premise take the top spot was a very refreshing outcome. Its placement on such a prestigious list has inevitably drawn greater attention to the film, even resulting in select cinema screenings. Having attended one of these screenings, it is a delight to say that the film has earned the praise it has received over the years.
On the surface, “Jeanne Dielman” is about as simplistic as it gets. Delphine Seyrig plays the titular Jeanne Dielman, whose name is only stated once in the entire film. Otherwise she is nameless. She plays a widowed mother with a teenage son (Jan Decorte). Taking place over three days, the film follows Jeanne’s daily routines. She wakes up, makes breakfast, sees her son off as he goes to school, cleans, goes to the shops, prepares food, has sex with clients who arrive at her flat – which is how she makes money, bathes, greets her son when he comes home, makes dinner, goes out, and then comes home to go to sleep. It is a grounded routine that begins to unravel, most noticeably on the third day.
Before we dive into the film, it should be noted that all “best of all time” film polls are inherently flawed. As critics and scholars such as Rebecca Harrison have previously pointed out, the very concept of a film canon is subjective and heavily dependent on who you ask. Even ignoring potential external factors, such as the imbalance of who is being asked the poll’s central question, in terms of gender, nationality, background etc., there is no way to effectively measure artforms, no matter what people may tell you. However, the Sight and Sound poll is still widely regarded as having the highest authority on this matter due to the wide pool of people it asks when conducting its poll. Because of this, the triumph of “Jeanne Dielman” for at least this decade’s poll is nothing to sniff at. Especially since the film itself is a remarkable work that proves just what cinema can do in opening audiences to either new or familiar experiences.
Many have labelled “Jeanne Dielman” a masterclass in feminist cinema, a label that Chantal Akerman would, ironically, have scoffed at due to her belief in cinema being a generational format of breaking down the walls of identity. However, there is no denying the feminist ideas on display. From its domestic setting to its central character to the subversive themes that underpin the former two attributes wonderfully, there is something defiantly and proudly feminist about Akerman’s choice of storytelling.
The most frequent criticism levelled at “Jeanne Dielman” is that it is boring. After all, it is an over three hour long movie that consists predominantly of long sequences captured through steadicam. Those sequences are almost entirely of domestic activities – including many scenes set in the kitchen, a favourite location of Akerman’s throughout her films. Each sequence often lasts between thirty seconds and as long as three minutes, with little if any dialogue other than casual conversation. For comparison’s sake, imagine the scene in David Lowrey’s “A Ghost Story” (2017) where Rooney Mara’s character eats a pie for four straight minutes. “Jeanne Dielman” evokes the same feeling of endurance across its entire picture.
“Jeanne Dielman” is an extraordinary film that may not necessarily be for everyone – it really does stick to its guns with its long sequences of mundanity – but it nonetheless revels in what cinema can achieve when utilised in service of empathy and experimentation.
What this criticism fails to understand is that the monotony and longevity of these captured chores is the fundamental point. The film is a love letter to a certain type of woman – the kind who does an oftentimes thankless role of domestic work, be it cooking, cleaning or child minding, and the quiet strength that comes with that. Akerman described the film as a love letter to her mother, Natalia, a woman who survived Auschwitz and encouraged Akerman to pursue a career as she worked as a housewife. Akerman was immensely close to her mother, and the clear admiration her direction holds for women like Jeanne are a testament to the titanic love she felt for her. For despite how long this film, and its various scenes are, it is the very fact that Jeanne, and thus mothers and housewives everywhere, can do such mundane activities and the numerous amount of them every day is a mark of endurance, and not the norm. “Jeanne Dielman” looks and even sometimes feels uncinematic, yet it fundamentally is at its core.
The film nevertheless acknowledges how having this routine day in and day out requires such strength; precisely because it is monotonous. The final third of the film showcases subtle differences in how Jeanne goes about her day, showing how the boredom and the pressure of such a rigid routine is slowly driving her mad. This crescendos into a shocking climax that is almost at odds with the rest of the film given how sudden it is. But eagle eyed viewers can see the slow unravelment happening as Jeanne repeats each activity and gets little to no reward out of it. It is arguably an endurance test for the audience, but nowhere near as much of a challenge for them as it is for Jeanne herself.
This is what makes the film so significant – it captures a universal feeling and truth in such an astute and bold way. That boldness comes from the fact that this is a film which, when viewing the complete picture, was the only real way Akerman could have conveyed her themes on the strength of femininity so well. The long takes, lack of music, steady shots and oftentimes silent acting from Seyrig all showcase the real time events of Jeanne’s life, as well as the simultaneous emptiness and busyness of it. Literature and even music could have been used in exploring the hidden strength of domestic work, and its links to womanhood, but they would not have put the audience in the shoes of those who have to live it everyday as powerfully or as confidently as “Jeanne Dielman” does. Granted, domestic housework is not a gendered concept anymore, particularly nowadays, yet there is no denying its historic ties to womanhood, even if it is based in rather segregational, even sexist ideas. Nevertheless, the fact that Akerman uses this specific setting and character to explore feminism showcases a willingness to address nuances and portray the obscured details that make Jeanne Dielman such a fascinating and subtly resilient woman. The steadicam long takes may not be exciting per se, but there is something truly hypnotic to the way they generate engagement despite this.
All of this displays a degree of experimentation, and perhaps even brazenness, from Akerman and her team. Yet what makes it so powerful, and thus worthy of being Sight and Sound’s number one film, is that it proves a sentiment that critics such as Roger Ebert spent their entire careers championing: that cinema is ultimately a means for generating empathy in an audience. Cinema has always been a gateway into exploring lives outside of your own. That does not always have to mean going to separate cities, countries, or even galaxies. Sometimes that can be proven by simply exploring the livelihood of a widowed mother struggling to make ends meet and getting drowned by the unseen yet crushing weight of life’s monotonous routine, as well as the perseverance that requires one to get up each day and live through it all over again. Tie that in with the knowledge of Akerman’s mother and how central she was to all of Akerman’s films, and not just “Jeanne Dielman”, and it is easy to see how this is a filmmaker who fundamentally understood cinema’s capacity for empathy and used it at every turn. That “Jeanne Dielman” also happens to be a perfect example of exploring the nuances in feminist cinema and characterisation only adds to the masterful nature of its presentation.
“Jeanne Dielman” is an extraordinary film that may not necessarily be for everyone – it really does stick to its guns with its long sequences of mundanity – but it nonetheless revels in what cinema can achieve when utilised in service of empathy and experimentation. That a film not only written and directed by a woman, but is so heavily ingrained with ideas of feminism and femininity, can triumph in a poll of the greatest films of all time is, if nothing else, an optimistic sign of how far the film industry has come in celebrating and endorsing diverse voices in both production and journalism.
That being said, there are still some ways to go. While the eleven featured female directed films in 2022’s poll compared to the mere two seen in 2012’s is a good step forward, best of all time film polls are still heavily skewed towards male directors and eurocentric films, the latter being especially noticeable when you factor in the absence of any Latin American cinema. This is an issue that film canon is likely going to be contending with for a while longer now. Yet if a film like “Jeanne Dielman” can defy the odds and be recognised as one of history’s greatest films alongside established classics like “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) and “Citizen Kane” (1941), then perhaps a fairer, more diverse film canon is closer than we think.