“A lonely widow turns to prostitution to make ends meet.” This one-sentence synopsis offered by HBO Max for its presentation of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is as literally accurate as it as tonally, emotionally, thoroughly misleading.
It suggests that Chantal Akerman’s 1977 masterpiece could be a humanist melodrama, the sort of hardscrabble women’s picture that was the bailiwick of Mikio Naruse or Kenji Mizoguchi. Or worse, that it could be like many a tawdry American B-picture about the desperate lengths of sex work.
Jeanne Dielman is neither of these things. It resembles no film that has come before it or since, and anyone whose interest is piqued by HBO’s teaser will be greatly disappointed by the dearth of titillation, to say nothing of Akerman’s rejection of such common cinematic traits as character psychology or plot development.
And a lot of people are discovering Jeanne Dielman lately. In November, Sight & Sound released its 10-year update of its 100 Greatest Films of All Time, compiled from the contributions of 1,639 critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics. (I wasn’t invited to participate, but perhaps someday!) Jeanne Dielman catapulted from No. 36, in 2012, to No. 1, dethroning the Ken Jennings of art films, the once-impermeable Citizen Kane. And since everything in America has to be reduced to opposing sides in the culture war, the blowback against a woman-directed picture claiming this coveted ranking was swift.
Disappointingly, the loudest critique came from a director I admire, Paul Schrader, who, while appreciating the movie itself, panned the choice as “a landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.” This prompted the usual social-media responses to the responses, and before long, Akerman’s three-and-a-half-hour film in which almost nothing happens was trending on social media and inspiring memes.
Perhaps it’s my childlike naïveté, but when I first heard the news, Akerman’s gender never crossed my mind, nor any sense of controversy the decision would spark: I was just thrilled that such a profound and game-changing work of cinema was being recognized. And since the only time I had seen Jeanne Dielman was on a low-quality DVD bootleg during my college years, well before its Criterion Collection remaster, I decided the time was never better to sit down with HBO Max and revisit a lonely widow turning to prostitution to make ends meet.
That widow, the title character, is played by Delphine Seyrig. Akerman follows three days in her life, an existence consisting of banalities and labors. She wakes, brews coffee, sees one john per morning, bathes herself, tends to errands, and makes dinners for her self-centered teenage son, played by Jan Decorte (Jeanne repeatedly admonishes him for reading while at the dinner table — a problem most parents of teenagers would feel fortunate to have!).
Akerman respects duration the way few filmmakers outside of Andy Warhol ever attempted to express. We experience how long it takes to wait for water to boil, to transact at a bank, to joylessly peel a potato. Akerman’s camera — tight and unmoving, with Ozu-like framing and a Kandinsky-like respect for geometric abstraction — ensures that Jeanne is forever hemmed in, as windows, doors and cabinetry divide the interior of her apartment into ever more constrictive spaces.
The fussy precision of Akerman’s structuralist style is reflected in Jeanne’s own fastidiousness. She is kept constantly busy by a need to maintain a home that’s as tidy as possible, from cleaning her bathtub immediately after use to folding napkins back into their rings to polishing her son’s shoes every morning — as if cleanliness were a shield against the quiet desperation encroaching on her consciousness. The longer you sit with Jeanne Dielman, the more it becomes apparent that seldom, if ever, does Jeanne engage in an activity solely for her own gratification.
Central to this perception is the remarkable and underrated performance from Seyrig, who creates a vessel of emotionless passivity whose best comparison is the donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar (No. 25 on Sight & Sound’s 2022 list). Stripped of all actorly affectation, she could almost be an automaton — a non-playable character going through the motions in the video game of her life.
This concept comes through even in the movie’s minimalist dialogue, as when Jeanne shares her dinner plans with her neighbor: “It’s Wednesday, so we eat breaded veal with peas and carrots.” Jeanne is such a creature of routine, her actions so rigid and predetermined, that we begin to question her agency. Indeed, the gulf between Jeanne Dielman and a commercial product like The Stepford Wives, released two years prior, is, in some ways, not as vast as it seems.
Because Jeanne Dielman is, in the end, a slow-moving horror film, emphasis on the slow. There is one shot that is so long, and so static, that it seems to congeal into a still-life photograph, rigor mortis all but setting in. The effect of watching scenes like this can feel mesmerizing in the literal sense; when Jeanne knits for a long stretch of time to Beethoven on a portable radio, and the music abruptly stops, it’s like a hypnotist suddenly snapping her fingers.
Jeanne Dielman requires an extraordinary amount of radical patience from its viewers, but the beauty of the film is that it’s not dense. Anyone can “get it” if they simply pay attention and let it wash over them. If we take the Seyrig-as-android metaphor further, Jeanne Dielman is about what happens when the robot’s wiring begins to scramble. It starts with her son’s callous objection that her “hair is messed up,” and for Jeanne, even a lock out of place is akin to a character flaw. Then she overcooks the potatoes. When shining her son’s shoes, she drops the brush; it clatters violently on her kitchen’s black-and-white checkerboard floor. These micro-disruptions to Jeanne’s carefully ordered life begin to pile up, suggesting a cumulative fraying. Soon enough, our eyes are drawn to the missing button on her blouse — an egregious act of sartorial inelegance.
It’s this final indignity that is the proverbial straw that breaks Jeanne’s back, as it were, leading to an act of murder that, in observing the film for the second time, is as forecast as any such action in Chekhov. Sitting alone at her dinner table with a bloody hand, Jeanne seems, for the first time in the movie, almost at peace.
Jeanne Dielman is clearly a feminist lodestar, as it chronicles, in a death by a thousand cuts, the abject dehumanization of the modern woman. But it also struck me as evoking the human condition more broadly, especially in times of economic distress not unlike our own, where many of us keep lifestyles not unlike Jeanne’s, harried and unending and in service to others.
That’s why it’s the No. 1 film in movie history: Not because of woke revisionism but because it’s a perfect, even occasionally witty, film about all of us. It’s the No. 1 because it deserves to be.