When “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” was ranked at the top of the Sight and Sound Magazine’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time, eyebrows were raised. Directed by the relatively unknown Chantal Akerman, the 1975 French film dethroned the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Film twitter had a breakdown- with almost everyone loaded with an opinion. Innumerable personal top-10 lists emerged. Some were left bewildered and stunned to have a relatively less popular title put at the top of the list. Akerman’s top position on the list also underlines another robust fact: she is the first female filmmaker to occupy the spot.
Yet, is this factor important in consideration of the greatest film of all time? The relevance should focus primarily on the film, and, correctly, Ackerman’s three-hour-long study of a widowed mother over the course of three days is masterful and rewarding. When a title as heavy as “the greatest film of all time” seems to appear on a film, it ultimately breaks open a discourse that might as well be understood in terms of several contexts: the significance of the film in the history of cinema, its contribution to artistic expression, its politics of choice, and its perennial banner of truth. Jeane Dielman holds all these links together to deliver a work that finds a middle ground between narrative feature and documentary. Say what you will about its record for securing the top spot on the Sight and Sound list, but its power and resilience remain unmatched.
Sit with Jeanne Dielman for the first 15 minutes, and you are invited to be part of the intimate world of the titular widowed housewife (Delphine Seyrig), who is in charge of keeping up with the mundane chores of her house. Once the setting is established, it is precisely interested in situating a woman of her time at her own house. She sets the table, prepares for dinner, takes a bath, and opens the door to a gentleman who then takes her to the other room. Next, we know both come out a little fussy as the man hands her some money. She closes the door, keeps the money in the round jar on the dinner table for safety, and prepares dinner. It’s time for her son to come. She sets the table, puts the plates in order, and gets the soup ready. Her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) arrives, and they eat together. She tells him not to read while eating. He complies. That’s all that is required to be communicated in a dry, emotionless exchange.
These scenes occur in real-time, which means that if Jeanne takes 10 minutes to scrub her body in the bathtub, the camera will stay beside her for 10 minutes. There is no cut or ruthless transition to the next scene. The obsessive planting of these sequences in real-time is done without frantic excess. There is no dramatic voyeurism in these long sequences that seem to go on forever. The mise-en-scène is built on the unity between time, place, and action. Ackerman rarely confronts her actor in closeup and rarely gives her any dialogue. She might be thinking of anything and everything at the moment. Why do we need to watch her do these chores for endless hours? It might be the first question that pops out. Ackerman merely hints at the restlessness for action, the inability to read a woman surrounded by her domestic chores, and how there is art in everyday commonalities. She goes in and out of the frame, then fastens herself back. Not a hint of outward force is to be found in the symmetrical coordination Jeanne finds in her house, yet we also see that she is always taking some kind of action. There is never a moment of rest for the woman. But how can she dare to cut herself out of this ritualistic devotion to domestic action? As a woman in middle-class society, she needs money and sustenance. Her husband is dead, and she needs to take care of her son. Who will take responsibility for Sylvain if she breaks free of the structure? There’s no question of that; Ackerman is interested in building that trust with the viewer to understand a woman without having to speak for herself. The absence of the immediate male patriarchal figure does not eradicate the mechanism of how patriarchy works in a social structure.
Notice the way Ackerman meticulously structures the film over the course of three days, where she lets the viewers move exactly in tandem with her protagonist—all her moments are timed so neatly that when the second day arrives, and she messes up the timing of boiling the potatoes, one instantly notices the break. When she forgets to close the lid of the tureen after keeping the money, the fracture in the familiar routine hits you like a jolt. Something is amiss. Ackerman steadily dials up the anxiety to the point where Jeanne is visibly pushing herself to do more and compensate for the task. She doesn’t take a bath the next day, and her son notices. She keeps quiet and carries on, the remnants of dead time catching up on her. This is a film that is not interested in dramatic conflict. Neither does it want to proclaim something about a revolution in terms of representation. It simply asks you to witness the impossibility of that toxic continuity of a woman’s existence, where she is vehemently trying to follow her subjugated role in society in order to survive. The experience, when played out in real-time, allows the audience to empathize with a woman whose life is not defined by ambition but by selfless labor. It is an endless chain of drudgery in a capitalist society where everyone is tending to their labor to keep themselves alive and functioning. When Jeanne finds a cafe to relax in for a bit, she doesn’t know what to do with the time she gets to herself. Her existence is defined by housekeeping, even as she yearns for the autonomy of some sort. The constant drudgery of her work is also a toxic pattern that she inflicts on herself because she does not want to experience purposelessness otherwise.
So, when Ackerman begins the third day, something is off immediately. Jeanne gets some time to herself, miraculously, and she sits on the sofa. What crosses her mind while she sits there doing nothing? Ackerman doesn’t give us easy answers; she invites her audience to spot the exhaustion, and the horror of a life lived in a long, increasingly unshowy fashion. At last, we see Jeanne when she is having sex with a stranger that evening, and she has an orgasm—it is the excruciating culmination of the physical as well as psychological pressures that she cannot break free from. She sits straight after the act is over and faces the mirror. She sets her hair and fastens her shirt buttons as the man dozes off for a moment. Then she gets the scissors and stabs him fatally in the chest. The last shot lingers on in the dark as she sits by the dinner table, vacantly staring outside, beyond the camera’s reach. She has broken the curse of normalcy at last, but at what cost?
Ackerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” is a stylistically astute dissection of space and time. The search for conflict is itself the subtext, where there is an apparition of normalcy. Yet under it lies a temporal reality that clamors between intention vs. movement, autonomy vs. consensus, and repression vs. violence. Ackerman has said that she wanted to make Jeanne Dielman because she wanted to provide space in the curriculum for movements that are otherwise deemed unnecessary and sidelined in the search for conventional drama. It is interesting how the film directly underlines the tangible preoccupation with change and deliberately resists the thrill of crossing from one moment to another. Residues of this can be found in the works of so many modern directors, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Abbas Kiarostami, Mia Hansen-Løve, and Jia Jhangke, to name a few. By the end of Jeanne Dielman, the branding of it as the greatest film of all time might seem elusive, given how the film itself is less concerned with any traditional tagline. Yet its mastery and resonance remain groundbreaking.