Is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman the Greatest Film of All Time?

Chantal Akerman’s movie Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is an important feminist movie that was voted the greatest film of all time.

Feb 16, 2024By Thom Delapa, MA Cinema Studies, MA Social Sciences (U.S. cultural history)
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When Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was named the greatest film of all time in 2022’s British Film Institute Sight and Sound critics’ poll, you could hear (and see) jaws dropping among cinephiles all over, from Brussels to Brooklyn. How could a hard-to-find, off-the-grid, 220-minute, minimalist feminist manifesto knock off such reigning heavyweights as Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo? Here’s everything you need to know about Chantal Akerman’s famous film.

 

Chantal Akerman and the British Film Institute

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The original 1975 poster. Source: FilmArt Gallery

 

Writer/director Chantal Akerman’s uncompromising 1975 film called Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles had been climbing in the BFI’s previous ten-year polls. In 2002 it was number 73;  by 2012 it had jumped to 38th – the first poll since 1952 not crowned by Citizen Kane, which slipped and fell to second under Vertigo. It almost goes without saying that the Belgian-born Akerman (1950-2015) in these polls took honors as the highest-ranking female director on the list. What happened in the last decade that caused this seismic critical shift? Is Jeanne Dielman worthy of a Tom Brady-esque Greatest of All Time U.S. footballer title, or might she be a flash in the (frying) pan?

 

Riding the Wave

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Jeanne in situ. Source: The Criterion Collection

 

Akerman’s longish title provides a clue to the nature of her severe counter-cinema project. Not only is her central character—middle-aged widow Jeanne Dielman–the scrutinized subject of nearly every shot in the film, she is wedded to the Brussels flat she calls home, where nearly all the action (or inaction) takes place. While Jeanne does venture out on occasion, there’s no question that her home is where her heart is. And figuring prominently in those trips is her building’s dark, old-world gated elevator, her cramped transport to the sickly-green domestic prison where she lives with her teenage son.

 

By virtue of its length, themes, and avant-garde audacity, critics have cited the work as a triumphant artistic culmination of the second-wave feminism that crested in the mid-1970s.  Of course, this was the roiling period of Western women’s liberation movements, legalizing birth control and abortion, and the ill-fated U.S. Equal Rights Amendment, all coming in the wake of such major polemics as Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). As a culturally influential global mass-entertainment form, the cinema was singled out by a growing cohort of feminist academics, not just for predominant narratives that marginalized or stereotyped women but for subjecting them to what’s commonly labeled as the voyeuristic male gaze through the use of such techniques as the close-up and point of view shots from a male perspective.

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Jeanne, the woman as image. Source: Chantal Akerman Foundation

 

Akerman interrogates (and undercuts) such common Hollywood techniques with a formal rigor that keeps the audience at a distance. She forces the spectator to view Jeanne less as an active agent than as a maid-to-order product of her surroundings—both the immediate, physical ones as well as the larger social constructs of gender. Ironically, this unusual treatment of a film protagonist as passive and anti-heroic is not so different than the one director Stanley Kubrick depicted in his 1975 picaresque historical epic Barry Lyndon. There, an 18th-century ne’er-do-well is dwarfed and buffeted about by a string of externalized social forces, be it class privilege, criminality, or the king’s armies. While he opportunistically rises to faux nobility on the basis of cunning and gender, he remains trapped in a pre-determined social role that dooms him.

 

Given Jeanne’s fixed and isolated address in the dead-end patriarchal world that Akerman presents, no upward trajectory is possible. A widow and mother, Jeanne works clandestinely at home as a part-time prostitute, entertaining her regular clients. Almost all these near-wordless exchanges take place off-screen and amount to little more numb transactions for Jeanne, who rotely deposits her earnings in an empty soup tureen on the dining-room table.

 

Steeped in 1960s Avant-Garde Minimalism

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Jeanne, the woman as mother. Source: The Boston Globe

 

But Jeanne’s first and foremost occupation is to be a mother and a housewife. She devotes much of her day to endlessly repeated and mechanical routines, principally in preparing dinner for her distracted, typically mum, son. No chatty Julia Child in the kitchen, Jeanne fastidiously cuts, chops, dices, fries, boils, and bakes in silence, all captured by cinematographer Babette Mangolte in long, uninterrupted real-time takes using frontal medium shots from a camera seemingly planted in the floor.

 

This type of character de-centered shooting style (including the camera either lingering on a room after Jeanne exits it or before she enters it) is flavored by the 1960s underground minimalism of filmmakers as diverse as Andy Warhol, Canada’s Michael Snow, and on to French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard. While obviously informed by critical period feminism, Jeanne Dielman also bears the stamp of post-1968 neo-Marxism, especially its stress on modern working-class exploitation and alienation. The worker, of course, is Jeanne. She labors at home alone, estranged from potential compatriots and other women, and has no sense of a class consciousness that might empower her. She has an unseen sister, who writes from faraway Canada, and an unseen neighbor (voiced by Akerman herself) who hands off her infant to Jeanne for minding while complaining of her frazzled life as a working wife and mother.

 

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Women’s work in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Source: The Criterion Collection

 

Made when she was only 25, Akerman’s portrayal is at once a searing critique and a loving tribute. How many other films have dared to present such tedious, timeless, woman’s work, and endowed it with a sense of actual lived duration? Jeanne is neither the idealized and anodyne mother of 1950s and 1960s U.S. TV series, nor her glamorized and sexualized opposite.

 

Early on, after her first client’s visit, Jeanne silently disrobes to soak in her bath, obsessively, even neurotically, scrubbing herself clean of the encounter. Counter to prevailing editing practice (even today’s), Akerman refuses to move in for close-ups or other fragmentary shots as concessions to a voyeuristic or curious gaze. As the aging, sagging Jeanne, French actress Delphine Seyrig is no longer the chic and icy beauty of such 1960s art-house hits as Last Year   at Marienbad, as she peels away her own ethereal star image.

 

Sex and the Single Widow

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Jeanne’s elevator. Source: Lars Ingebrigtsen

 

Allowed by the film’s epic length, spectators are privy to the tiny details of Jeanne’s routines, all of which begin to suspiciously appear as symptoms of a compulsive need for order within a larger world she has no control over. Bit by bit, day by day, her routines go awry. She errantly buttons her sweater. She burns the potatoes boiling on the stove. In the oft-quoted words of poet William Butler Yeats, Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Jeanne is an automaton who blows a fuse (or a semi-conductor).

 

Once programmed by her ritualistic chores, Jeanne flies off the merry-go-round into a void. In a quintessential moment of rudderless despair, she sits frozen on her couch for several minutes, the passive camera taking it all in until her psychological and emotional clock seems to reset.

 

At the repressed bottom of Jeanne’s alienation and dysfunction is sex, or at least sex as viewed through the long, phallic lens of traditional patriarchy. Sex is discussed (briefly, with her son) only as an assault with the woman as the skewered victim. The result is not pleasure or love but merely the burden of children.

 

While equal rights for women in Europe and North America have made revolutionary gains over the past 50 years, the same can’t be said for women and girls everywhere in the world. In the words of critic Ivone Margulies, Jeanne’s rigidly defined, archetypal historical occupations as a woman are simultaneously on display as mother and the whore.

 

Chantal Akerman’s Film is Great, but Is It The Greatest? 

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Chantal Akerman at work, via Marian Goodman Gallery

 

However uniquely important as the 1970s consciousness-raising drama, Akerman’s film is nevertheless a demanding brainchild born of a particular time and place, not unlike Jeanne herself. Will the BFI/Sight and Sound accolades bring it new life in revival cinemas (the few remaining), on DVDs, or via cable TV and streaming? That prospect is half-baked at best. While perennial favorites like Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove are dated in their own way (especially to younger audiences), they nevertheless remain accessible and entertaining for their legions of fans and live on in Western pop culture.

 

Even the two-hour-plus Vertigo—a rare Hitchcock box-office disappointment—exists as both a commercial mystery-thriller and as a complex meditation on male romantic obsession and l’amour fou. Indeed, one could make a good case that Hitchcock’s less formalistic style is more effective than Akerman’s in involving the audience. The famed director did once say that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. Furthermore, while Akerman eschews a musical soundtrack that might serve to compromise her stark Brechtian subversions of Hollywood form and content, both Citizen Kane and Vertigo offer memorably integral orchestral scores by the great Bernard Herrmann.

 

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Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock. Source: IMDb

 

Just as Jeanne Dielman was a product of its times, one can also see its surprising canonization and miraculous ascension last year as a product of a decade in which the ongoing worldwide women’s movement ironically appears both energized and enervated. Whether the #MeToo protests, the return to misogynistic rule by the Afghanistan Taliban, the momentous 2016 White House defeat of Hillary Clinton, or last year’s reversal of the U.S. Roe vs. Wade pro-abortion ruling, the specter of patriarchal primacy seems to have made a comeback.

 

Was then the choice of Akerman’s magnum opus primarily a statement, with voters boldly serving notice that attention must be paid to women’s roles and rights? If so, it’s no surprise that such a work would garner votes over such relatively apolitical, certainly non-topical male-centered classics such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo. It may also be a loud, if blustery, shout-out to the woman as auteur/artist, which for much of cinema’s history has been a rarity in an overwhelmingly macho métier of men. If that’s the case, the choice was perhaps more prescient than singularly deserved. Anyone visiting with U.S. writer/director Greta Gerwig today won’t likely find her home alone slaving over the stove painstakingly preparing dinner. But you may find her in a Hollywood penthouse cooking up a sequel to her Barbie blockbuster, likely 2023’s biggest, fattest box-office hit.

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By Thom DelapaMA Cinema Studies, MA Social Sciences (U.S. cultural history)Thom is a film/media studies educator, film critic, and part-time playwright based in Ann Arbor, MI, USA, where he has taught at the University of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies (Detroit). He holds an MA in Cinema Studies from New York University-Tisch School of the Arts and an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. He has developed and taught film courses at other leading U.S. institutions, including the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Denver. He has written on film for Cineaste magazine, the Chicago Tribune, AlterNet, and the Conversation, et al. He awaits the end of the Internet (as we know it) with optimism.