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This Woman's Work

BFI National Archive

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

Sight and Sound magazine is the leading repository of film criticism. It used to be the critical outlet of record – i.e., it was responsible for reviewing every single movie released in British cinemas – and is still one of the main resources for critical thinking on world cinema and non-Hollywood movies in Britain. As part of the British Film Institute, its critical reportage also aligns with the repertory program of the BFI cinemas in central London. And once a decade, the magazine asks hundreds of people heavily involved with cinema what the 10 best movies of all time are. There are no constraints on what people can choose, and this time 1,600 critics, film professionals and generally interesting people were polled. And the new film that headed the poll was a shocker. It was “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” a Belgian movie about a widowed housewife made in 1975 by a 25-year-old woman, Chantal Akerman. It was only her second film. As a result of the poll result, “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is now available to stream for the first time ever in Britain, and will be shown via a BFI program in cinemas around Britain next year. It is suddenly up for critical reassessment in a way that few movies are ever granted, and the reasons for that are just as interesting as the film itself.

The movie takes place over three days in the life of Jeanne (French actress Delphine Seyrig), who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in central Brussels with her teenage son Sylvain (Jan Decorte). Her life is orderly and regimented, and Akerman’s deliberately thoughtful style observes Jeanne as she moves around her apartment, switching the lights on and off as she goes. Sylvain sleeps on a fold-out sofa in the sitting room; and every morning after he leaves, Jeanne folds his discarded pajamas under his pillow, then folds the sofa back into its daytime position. A neighbor hands over a baby in its basket; Jeanne minds the baby for a brief period before the mother rings the bell and the baby is handed back out the door. She goes out to run errands, waits for the lift, then stares at nothing as the lift descends. She buys the ingredients for the evening’s dinner in various shops, leaves Sylvain’s shoes at the cobbler to be resoled, looks for a matching skein of wool to continue the sweater she is knitting for him. She goes into a café for a cup of coffee, and the camera sits opposite her, observing, as she drinks it in full, in silence. But in the late afternoon a, ahem, gentleman caller arrives; and Jeanne takes him into her bedroom. The significance of the towel on top of the bedspread suddenly becomes clear. Night has fallen when her bedroom door finally opens. The gentleman’s hat, coat and scarf are returned to him and a discreet sum of cash is handed over. Jeanne puts the money into a pot on the dining room table and goes to check on the potatoes simmering on the stove. The towel is placed into the hamper in the bathroom and the bedroom windows are opened, just for a minute.

The slow, deliberate attention paid means that when on the third day, Jeanne fails to do up a button when putting on her bathrobe, we realize something is incredibly wrong. This is a woman whose life has a routine, and everything has its place, as her movements around the apartment made brilliantly clear. So when she is rattled and upset, we notice; not because she says anything, or does anything more dramatic than spoil the coffee or drop a spoon. Our attention has been forced, and through nothing more than her actions we come to understand what Jeanne is thinking. It’s the kind of slow attention more commonplace on television – where audiences can spend years observing and considering a character – but very rare in cinema, where fleeting moments of character work are generally in service to a bigger plot. But here the character work is the plot, and Akerman is showing us how we can intuit Jeanne’s state of mind through her actions.

There’s a little bit of narrative help, but not much. The furnishing in the flat are old-fashioned, possibly inherited; and the setting of 1974 is only confirmed by a calendar in the office where Jeanne pays a bill. She has a sister in Canada, who married a soldier who liberated them after the war and who she’s not seen since a visit after her own husband died, six years previously. She reads her sister’s letter aloud to Sylvain after dinner, even though Sylvain would clearly prefer to be reading his books. He never makes eye contact with his mother, even when making the most inappropriate sexualized confidences. Jeanne’s parents are dead, there’s mention of some aunts who were “no fun,” and she keeps her wedding photo on her armoire. She isn’t alone – apart from Sylvain, there are chats with other women in the stores and a plan is made to have coffee with a friend she bumps into while shopping – but she is as isolated a character as has ever been seen onscreen, and to spend time with her while she is alone with her thoughts is an extraordinary cinematic experience. Seyrig manages to communicate incredible distress in how Jeanne looks for, but cannot find, somewhere to set down a pot. It’s a minimalist style of acting that must have needed the most incredible concentration, to express mood only through action. And since nothing is telegraphed for the audience, the audience must observe and consider.

It’s a surprise that this movie was chosen as the best of all time for this decade’s poll. There are several reasons for that. One, there’s been a palpable feminist reckoning within film criticism since #MeToo which means people are thinking hard about how movies by women are assessed – as well as getting more female critics to do the assessing. Two, Sight and Sound is for and by the auteurs, meaning there’s a deliberate push within the magazine to examine the smaller, the non-Anglophone and the esoteric with the critical care and attention normally only afforded to mainstream blockbusters. Three, the blockbuster audience’s casual contempt for nonblockbuster films has been weaponized – just look at Elon Musk’s recent insults over Twitter about The New York Times’s film critic A. O. Scott’s end-of-year list that didn’t include “Top Gun: Maverick” – so it’s no surprise that cinematic professionals might seize a once-in-a-decade chance to redirect the narrative. To strike back, if you will.

Misogyny and hegemony aren’t going to be eradicated by the choice of one movie in a magazine poll, of course, but it sure is pulling some reactionary takes into the harsh light of day. People whining about how the movie is boring are usually just complaining about having to pay attention to a woman. As you know, Bob, narrative these days is spoon-fed to the audience because there’s no safe bet that audiences will, or even can, read between the lines anymore. And the fact that a movie requiring subtitles (unless you speak French) has been boosted in this way is a step too far for those who expect all cultural products to be made within and reflect only their own culture back to them.

Is “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” the greatest movie of all time? Of course not. (Is “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo” or “Magic Mike XXL”? This is the great joy of criticism, in that a case can be made for any of those, admittedly some more easily than others. The fact that “the best” is completely subjective makes these kinds of polls even more interesting. Several people have pointed out that there’s a disproportionate number of British films in the poll, although for a poll done by a British magazine that’s not surprising; if it was done anywhere else in the world there would be different results.) But there’s a strong case to be made that “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is the greatest movie for right now. Its choice demonstrates that films by women are finally getting overdue critical attention, that global cinema is finally being taken seriously by English-language audiences, and that movie’s current reliance on C.G.I. and all sorts of special effects is a gimmick meaningless in comparison to the way a woman peels a potato. Seyrig died of cancer in 1990; Akerman died in 2015, possibly of suicide after the death of her mother. But there’s a good chance their work in this movie will live forever now, and we have critical good taste to thank for that.


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