In the most recent Sight and Sound Top 100 List, a 201-minute avant-garde Belgian film from 1975, “Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du commerce 1080 Bruxelles,” shockingly upstaged the classic top two “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane.” In addition to its high critical praise, Chantal Akerman’s masterwork might be the most inventive and uniquely feminist movie of all time in both its content and form.
The Sight and Sound Top 100 List is a once-a-decade ranking of the 100 greatest movies of all time established by the British Film Institute. The most recent rankings were released in 2022, and the organization polls thousands of critics worldwide to compile it. Due to its prestigious and diverse input, the list serves as an accurate indication of where the critical eye lies in evaluating different cinematic periods and groupings.
The obscure top pick on the list in 2022 details three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman and — except for one scene at the end — entirely consists of the woman engaging in various daily banalities. Jeanne, a widow raising a teenage son, cleans, buys food, cooks and bathes.
Director Chantal Akerman does not shoot these scenes stylishly, overlay music or monologues or even cut very quickly from scene to scene. We watch actress Delphine Seyrig perform the entirety of her errands, with the notable exception of the first two prostitution scenes. The protagonist is not shot erotically or voyeuristically, and Akerman uses less flattering but more realistic lighting.
Viewers accustomed to sex and violence in film are met with initially unbearably long shots of each completed minutiae. But as time passes, Akerman draws the audience into the order and pattern of Jeanne’s meticulous actions. So, by the time the second day rolls around more than an hour into the film, viewers seek the same control over the surroundings as the protagonist, anticipating some of the same routine as well as Jeanne’s fastidious and methodical attention to it.
This rhythm of routine is disrupted midway through the second day by something offscreen, presumably something happening during the second sex scene, although the audience is given no direct indication of that. Instead, Jeanne slowly begins making mistakes, rushing more, running late. Now the audience, like Jeanne, is so tuned into order and control that each uncombed lock of hair and each misplaced jar cover carries the weight of a gunshot. Chaos has invaded her space, disrupting her actions and their resulting reassurance of control.
Jeanne’s increasingly disordered state continues into the penultimate scene of the film, its only direct instance of sex and violence. However, this mostly conventional action-packed climax is shot just like the preceding three hours of chores, so the audience does not receive any pleasure from it, only further disruption. And after a final eight-minute silent shot that depicts the protagonist returning to some semblance of stasis, Akerman simply releases the viewers from their heightened attentiveness.
Akerman breaks down the male cinematic binary of women as passive mothers or ruinous harlots by depicting a character who, while both a mother and a prostitute, is defined by neither of these elements. The audience sees her as a mother and infers but does not see (until the end) that she is a prostitute. Yet the majority of the film is built around Jeanne’s quotidian routine, the arena in which her distress comes to light and where she attempts to maintain control.
Jeanne is passively trapped in a series of feminine societal roles. Therefore, her attempts to exert order on her life via these roles, and her later inability to do so, clue the audience in on her psychological unwinding below the surface. The lone moment of violence at the end of the film is shot similarly as the scenes of the previous days, which renders the previous day of increasing disruptions as emotionally resonant as the moment of actual violence. Jeanne’s final violent act is just another Freudian slip of the spiraling woman seeking stasis, and no more significant than an unmade bed.
Feminist film critic Helene Cixous writes that women must write women according to women, putting themselves in the text. And this is exactly what Akerman accomplishes in “Jeanne Dielman.” She depicts a protagonist passively trapped in social roles, exploring her psychology and quest for control in the banalities of these roles.
Furthermore, Akerman creates a unique cinematic language that, opposed to masculine filmmaking techniques such as the male gaze, draws the audience into the arena of this quotidian violence. As the ending shows, this technique is just as cinematically fertile as sex and violence. “Jeanne Dielman” is truly an unparalleled work of film and well-deserving of its high critical appreciation.