“Jeanne Dielman” has changed, and continues to change, our relationship with cinema itself

Chantal Akerman’s newly crowned greatest film of all time screens free at MMoCA on June 11 in conjunction with the museum’s Christina Ramberg exhibition.
Jeanne Dielman peels potatoes at a kitchen table with a neutral expression.
Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) shakily peels potatoes in “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975).

Chantal Akerman’s newly crowned greatest film of all time screens free at MMoCA on June 11 in conjunction with the museum’s Christina Ramberg exhibition.

Come one, come all, to witness the newly crowned Greatest Film of All Time at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) on Sunday, June 11, at 2 p.m.! Much had already been written, and even more has been written since, Chantal Akerman’s seminal Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) claimed the #1 spot on 2022’s Sight & Sound (S&S) critics’ poll of the best films. It’s hard to outline all the factors that led to the film’s meteoric rise in both critical and popular esteem over the decades (from #73 in 2002 and #36 in 2012), but the obvious reason is that the world is finally catching up with Akerman’s masterful, perennially underrated (until recently) work.

Jeanne Dielman is rightly considered a landmark in her career (and film in general), due to its rigid and real-time depiction of a widow’s domestic routine. Over the course of three days (and running time of 200 minutes), we see Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) cook, clean, dote on her teenage son, and receive johns in her apartment through frank, extended shots. The actual sex work is not depicted onscreen until the final stretch of the film, but as viewers, we understand it as part of her cyclical duties as she moves through each room of her home in these static long takes. This is in keeping with Akerman’s career-long interest in applying structuralist avant-garde principles to character psychology. It’s only the explicit, observable details of Jeanne’s routine, changing and breaking apart as the film moves towards a jarringly violent conclusion, that give us insight into her mental dissolution. 

There’s something to be said for this particular film supplanting Vertigo (1958), which in turn dethroned the five-decade-running champ Citizen Kane (1941) when it was voted #1 in the 2012 S&S poll. It’s at least partly a result of this last poll’s major increase in women, queer, and POC critics among the polling base. (Also, S&S reportedly doubled the size of their polling base to 1,600 from the last one in 2012.) Akerman, due in part to her undeniable skill and innovation in linking narrative and avant-garde styles, is also an easy reference point for anyone with a feminist sensibility who qualifies for critics’ polls. But that doesn’t fully explain the film’s crowning, given that it’s also a radically different formal experience from other works usually considered the “best of all time.”

Akerman’s cinema changes our relationship with cinema itself, and Jeanne Dielman was revolutionary in pushing back against the cardinal quality of movies (that they move) to force stillness. More than we would with a sequence of still images in, say, an art gallery or a Powerpoint, we feel with Akerman’s “slow cinema” a sort of forced perspective that’s humane and distinct from the durational experiments of Andy Warhol and Michael Snow (noted influences on Akerman).

One of the chief complaints (“nothing happens!”) against this type of work betrays a selfishness, a refusal to meet the demands of the artist when they become more onerous than is comfortable. This discomfort can and should be a site of personal reflection: “What is my rhythm? What is that out of sync with, and what else have I been avoiding?” Films this opaque, like Jeanne Dielman, set up a sort of psychological and political vacuum into which our ideas flow. What we know when we watch Seyrig’s performance is that something in Jeanne’s psyche is breaking down, but the possibilities range from nothing to everything. This is what makes Akerman’s work so masterful. She is constantly aware of the trap of identification in art, the way that the form of film demands a psychological projection from viewers that can be easily altered by withholding just a little more. And in one of cinema’s most withholding films, we can find endless possibilities.

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