The greatest film of all time: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

For the first time in 70 years the Sight and Sound poll has been topped by a film directed by a woman – and one that takes a consciously, radically feminist approach to cinema. Things will never be the same.

1 December 2022

By Laura Mulvey

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Sight and Sound

Such a sudden shake-up at the top of Sight and Sound’s ten-yearly poll! Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) heads the 2022 list. No other film made by a woman has ever even reached the top ten. In the first instance, this is unsurprising: women film directors have always, obviously, been few and far between; equally obviously, the contributing critics have been predominantly male. It was when Sight and Sound expanded the critics’ pool in 2012 that Jeanne Dielman first entered the list, at number 35; its rise to the top now is a triumph for women’s cinema.

But perhaps the ultimate surprise goes even further: the film that collected the most votes in 2022 is made with a cinematic style and strategy closer to avant-garde than mainstream traditions and, furthermore, at just under three and a half hours, demands dedicated viewing. Although confrontational, idiosyncratic and extraordinary films have consistently appeared lower in the lists, the experimental tradition, to which Jeanne Dielman belongs, is – apart perhaps from the recent appearance of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) – absent. While it has brought this tradition to the top of the list, Jeanne Dielman is inescapably a woman’s film, consciously feminist in its turn to the avant garde. On the side of content, the film charts the breakdown of a bourgeois Belgian housewife, mother and part-time prostitute over the course of three days; on the side of form, it rigorously records her domestic routine in extended time and from a fixed camera position. In a film that, agonisingly, depicts women’s oppression, Akerman transforms cinema, itself so often an instrument of women’s oppression, into a liberating force.

Citizen Kane (1941)

All of us who have followed the Sight and Sound polls over the years – always a fascinating, if slow-moving, weathercock of cinematic taste – are now, no doubt, speculating about what this sudden change might signify. I have found myself wondering over the last few days, confronted with this turn-up for the poll’s history, how Jeanne Dielman might possibly sit alongside its three companion films. As we all know, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) dominated the list for 40 years, from 1962 to 2002, bracketed at one end, in 2012, by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and, at the other, in the first poll in 1952, by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Vertigo had been gradually closing in on Citizen Kane for decades; Jeanne Dielman has appeared from nowhere. Does the new arrival throw some (speculative) light on the top-of-the-poll films? Clearly, Jeanne Dielman and Bicycle Thieves are both ‘movement’ films. The influence of the women’s movement was crucial for Akerman; De Sica’s films of the late 1940s are exemplary of neorealism, pioneering the use of non-professional actors and location shooting, and committed to depicting the social problems of post-World War II Italy.

Vertigo (1958)

Citizen Kane and Vertigo are, on the other hand, untethered oddities: both are Hollywood films, benefiting enormously from its technological supremacy, but both are films of fixation, out of kilter with the studio system. This sense of fixation runs from one side of the camera to the other. Kane and James Stewart’s Scottie are irrationally driven; Welles and Hitchcock (one at the beginning, one towards the end of his career) conjure up their protagonists’ fragile, obsessive structures of self-delusion with a special, perhaps appropriately obsessive mastery of cinematic style. In a sense, Jeanne Dielman shares something of this: there’s a certain kind of unrelenting rigour in Akerman’s cinematic strategies that echo her protagonist’s fixations and, indeed, the fragility of her self-delusion. The unconscious plays such a determining part in all these three narratives. And indeed, although seemingly the odd one out, De Sica invests an element of personal desperation into Antonio’s pursuit of his bicycle. Although, in the first instance, he is driven by poverty and despair, might the juxtaposition of Bicycle Thieves with the other top-of-the-poll films allow Antonio to be reimagined as another portrait of fixation on a lost object? And De Sica’s own pursuit in the immediate post-war period of his neorealist aesthetic was single-minded and, given his lack of critical or box-office recognition in Italy, perhaps even obsessive.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

But leaving aside these dangerous generalisations, for me, and for all of us who have been rooting for Jeanne Dielman over the decades, this is an extraordinary moment of celebration. I would like to use it go back to my own first encounter with Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and reflect on the special significance that the film has had for me over the intervening years. I first saw it at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1975 –a year remarkable for the energy and fertility of experimental film, as it veered between an extreme art cinema and an actual avant-garde. The films shown included, from the United States: Film About a Woman Who… and Lives of Performers (both Yvonne Rainer), What Maisie Knew (Babette Mangolte – Akerman’s, Rainer’s and later Sally Potter’s cinematographer), Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (Michael Snow) and Speaking Directly (Jon Jost); from the UK: The Amazing Equal Pay Show (London Women’s Film Group) and Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Film Collective); and from Europe: Moses and Aron (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet) and The Middle of the Road Is a Very Dead End (Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz).

Alongside these films, all remarkable in their different ways, Jeanne Dielman stood out as something completely new and unexpected. It was the film’s courage that was immediately most striking. Akerman’s unwavering and completely luminous adherence to a female perspective (not, that is, via the character, Jeanne Dielman, but embedded in the film itself and its director’s vision) combined with her uncompromising and completely coherent cinema to produce a film that was both feminist and cinematically radical. One might say that it felt as though there was a before and an after Jeanne Dielman, just as there had once been a before and after Citizen Kane.

Chantal Akerman
Marion Kalter

Jeanne Dielman had been first screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Akerman has described the difficult atmosphere, as she and Delphine Seyrig, the film’s star, sat at the back of the cinema listening to the seats banging as the audience walked out. In a later interview she said: “The next day fifty people invited the film to festivals. And I travelled with it all over the world. The next day, I was on the map as a filmmaker but not just any filmmaker. At the age of twenty-five, I was given to understand that I was a great filmmaker. It was pleasing, of course, but also troubling because I wondered how I could do better. And I don’t know if I have.”

This “I don’t know if I have” is moving and thought-provoking, and it relates directly to the sense of ‘one-offness’ that emanates from Jeanne Dielman. Akerman had made, and went on to make, outstanding films (for instance, Je, tu, il, elle in 1974 and News from Home in 1976), but the power that radiates from Jeanne Dielman was not to be repeated. This has, perhaps, some bearing on its arrival at the top of the poll. Akerman’s extraordinary qualities as a filmmaker made the film the phenomenon it was and is, but the sense of unrepeatability is rooted in the 1970s and in the consciousness and the possibilities associated with feminism and the avant garde. Jeanne Dielman remains, to my mind, the outstanding film of that particular conjuncture of radical politics and radical aesthetics. However, the film raises an issue that is hard to articulate: how the energy and creative demands of a political movement interact with the energy and creativity of an individual; when, that is, someone touches, and then draws on, a nerve of urgency beyond the sum of his or her parts, the product is more exemplary than personal, more transcendent than subjective.

There is a great deal of illuminating writing on Akerman’s cinema, particularly on Jeanne Dielman. I want to try to focus on the way that she exploits the cinema specifically and as such, so that the spectator is always and unavoidably aware of watching events unfold through the film medium and its various prisms. As Jeanne’s fate rolls inexorably forward, like the reel of the film, the moments of near stillness that punctuate her days open up screen space, bringing other temporal rhythms into play. As Akerman translates the narrative situation into times and spaces specific to film, supremely appropriate for the subject, she is also drawing on intrinsically cinematic qualities and values. For instance, as Jeanne switches off the light every time she leaves a room, with the instinct of an economically minded housewife, Akerman simultaneously, on a formal, filmic level, varies lightness and darkness on screen.

Plot conflates with temporal structures as Jeanne’s (repeated) activities are depicted serially across a three-day grid, performing her role as housewife and mother to her teenage son Sylvain, and as prostitute for three loyal clients each with his own allocated day. Order and cleanliness fill her daily existence and her outward appearance has an unassuming elegance that belies any connotation of prostitution. But the absolute perfection of her clothes, make-up and hair paradoxically suggests something hidden, something to be concealed. In keeping with Akerman’s interest in psychoanalysis at the time, Delphine Seyrig’s incomparable performance intimates the active presence of the character’s unconscious.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Akerman has described the way she drew on the meticulous domestic culture of the Belgian middle-class housewives among whom she had grown up to create the character of Jeanne Dielman. She has said – and this is one reason why the film has been so important to feminists – that “I made this film to give all these actions typically undervalued a life on film.” Akerman creates a kind of lexicon of domestic gesture, which takes this invisible culture and puts it at the centre of an avant-garde film, at the centre of art. As she gives these actions a new value on the screen, she allows the real time they take to become screen time, throwing the spectator’s understanding of cinematic convention into disarray. Filming always from the same frontal position, at Akerman’s own eye level, the camera records, for instance, Jeanne as she does the washing-up, and then with a kind of anthropological exactitude follows the intricate details involved in French traditional cooking. Film convention demands a shift in point of view, camera movement and so on, to save the spectator from the strangeness of seeing time itself pass. When a shot is held beyond normal expectation, the flow of time belonging to the fiction begins to fade, and the time of its recording comes to the fore. Only film can record the image of a chunk of time as it passes.

Halfway through the film, the narrative harmony between Jeanne’s time and space is shattered. There have been intimations of this instability from very early on. Jeanne’s interior autonomy is complicated by a presence from outside, a hint of a parallel, perhaps film noir-ish universe: a blue neon light flashes continually into the sitting room, its penetrating beam hitting a glass-fronted case that stands directly behind the dining table. Almost invisibly, the flashing light unsettles the interior space, like a sign from the unconscious pointing to a site of repression. And then an innocuous domestic object becomes a metonymic representation of Jeanne’s prostitution: after each client leaves, she immediately puts her money into a decorative soup tureen that sits on the dining table. As she does so, she walks past the flashing light reflected in the glass behind her, accentuated by the semi-darkness of the room. As Akerman, characteristically, holds her shots for a few seconds after Jeanne has left the frame, the flashing light has time to become more acutely significant. Each evening, mother and son sit at the dining table. When the camera faces Jeanne, the soup tureen is half visible to her left at the edge of the frame, while the light flashes beside her, creating – as it were – a triangle of guilt.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

The plot of Jeanne Dielman is structured by the three afternoon visits of Jeanne’s three clients; and the moment of change revolves around the second client’s visit. The film’s opening sequence has already established the normal routine around the first client (played by the Belgian documentary filmmaker Henri Storck). Jeanne is putting the potatoes on to cook just before he rings the bell. The camera stays outside the room and only a darkening of the light in the corridor indicates the passing of this (prostitution) time. Then, in quick succession: she is paid, she sees her client out, she puts the money in the tureen, then drains the potatoes and has a bath. On the second day, she puts on the potatoes, precisely and according to routine, just before her client (played by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, a critic for Cahiers du cinéma) arrives. But Jeanne emerges from the bedroom disoriented. At first, she forgets to turn on the light in the corridor as she sees out her client; as she puts the money in the tureen as usual, she forgets to replace the lid; and then she tidies the bedroom and has her bath, forgetting that the potatoes are still cooking on the stove. There is now an opaque thread in the texture of the screen: the heavy significance of the unseen bedroom with implications of Jeanne’s capitulation to her sexuality and the loss of bodily control inherent in orgasm.

On the third day, her routine is disrupted by slight parapraxes, unconscious slips, and she wanders aimlessly between activities and different rooms. Returning home from afternoon shopping, still haunted by slight misadventure, she finds a parcel from her sister in Canada. Distracted, she fails to put the potatoes on to cook at all. Just before the third client (played by Yves Bical) rings the bell, she fetches a pair of scissors to unpack the parcel. This and the next scene form the film’s ultimate conundrum. For the first time, the camera comes into Jeanne’s bedroom as she undresses and has sex with her client; and, also, for the first time, Jeanne’s mask of composure disintegrates into a series of grimaces as she lies under the client, seeming to signal an oscillation between disgust and pleasure. As she gets dressed, carefully buttoning her blouse, she is reflected in her mirror, which also shows the man, lying on the bed in the background. Suddenly Jeanne grabs the scissors and stabs him.

The significance of the murder has been discussed by many commentators with varying perspectives over the years since the film came out. Akerman has cited the influence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), in which the hero blows himself up, deprived by the narrative of any other option. Similarly, Akerman has closed in on Jeanne, narrowing her parameters, just as Michael Snow’s 45-minute zoom in Wavelength (1967, also cited by Akerman as a key influence) reached the far end of the loft and ran out of focal length. There is also a death in Wavelength, but the film continues to zoom, over the body, with increasing abstraction until it closes on a still photograph. Akerman, when asked why she ended the film with a murder, replied: “It didn’t end with a murder. There are seven very strong minutes after that.”

On the set of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Fondation Chantal Akerman/Virginia Haggard-Leierns

In these seven minutes, Jeanne sits in shadow at the dining room table, her white blouse slightly stained with blood. The blue light from outside seems to be heightened in intensity in its reflection behind her, further accentuated as its beam hits a white china dog on the top shelf of the cabinet; Jeanne and the soup tureen next to her are both reflected vividly in the shiny surface of the table. There is something of a Brechtian gesture in the murder, an explosive event that leaves the spectator uncertain and wondering, retracing the events that brought Jeanne and the film to this final image. To sum up: Akerman has made use of the language of film to inscribe mute meanings on to the screen and bring these questions, dramatised in the emblematic silence of Jeanne’s existence and the gradual eruption of her unconscious into symptomatic actions, slips and parapraxes, into the public sphere of cinema.

Chantal Akerman’s film has topped the Sight and Sound list in its own right and in recognition of a supreme cinematic achievement. Interest in gender in cinema and the objectification of women has gathered momentum, especially as awareness of the misogyny inherent in the industrial mode of production – what we call ‘Hollywood’ – has become widespread. Perhaps as the oppression of women in the film industry has attracted attention, fuelled by the #MeToo hashtag, so has the oppression of women on the screen itself, in its fictions and inscribed into film language. It would be gratifying to think that the triumph of Jeanne Dielman in the poll gives an affirmation to these shifts in consciousness. But the critics’ greater willingness to watch difficult films reflects a wider acceptance of ‘slow cinema’. When I first included Jeanne Dielman in avant-garde film classes in the early 1980s, there were always some students – perhaps even a lot – who had to leave to smoke, to go to the lavatory, etc. I noticed recently that, 20 or so years later, a whole class would be gripped by the film, actually experiencing its suspenseful plot as well as its mesmerising cinematic language.

Between 2013 and 2015, A Nos Amours, a freelance project founded by Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts, curated a complete retrospective of the films and videos of Akerman in London. Over those two years, with all films and videos shown in correct format, the season gathered a devoted following. It is impossible to know whether this exposure in London has had any effect on Akerman’s standing in a poll of international critics. But she has also had further exposure through her installation work. The extraordinary achievement of the A Nos Amours retrospective culminated in a major exhibition of her installations at University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery and an accompanying conference. But these celebrations were cast in a different light by the tragic news of Akerman’s death on 5 October 2015, a few weeks before the exhibition opened. Her premature death has probably brought a wider section of the film community to her work, including many who might not, in their normal viewing habits, have included a three-and-a-half-hour-long feminist, avant-garde film. The arrival of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at the top of the 2022 Sight and Sound poll signals an amazing shift in critical taste. Given the status of the poll, the film will attract a new audience, drawn, first of all, by curiosity to this latest addition to the list of great films of cinema history; and then, held enthralled by the extraordinarily daring cinema of a great woman director.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles screens at BFI Southbank, London, on 4 and 28 January.

BFI Southbank will screen the full 100 Greatest Films of All Times across January, February and March. 

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles will be available exclusively on BFI Player Subscription from 1 December – the first time the film has been available to stream in the UK. In addition, audiences across the UK will also have the opportunity to view over 40 of the titles from the Critics’ top 100 poll at home on BFI Player (including 9 of the top 10 films) both on rental and subscription.

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