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Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

On 35mm film. Part of our Women Making Movies celebration.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

On December 1st, the British Film Institute and Sight and Sound magazine announced the results of their decennial “Greatest Films of All Time” poll—a major event for movieheads. At the top: “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” It was a long shot—if Ladbrokes had Sight and Sound odds, it might have predicted “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Tokyo Story” or last decade’s champion, “Vertigo,” in the top spot. The late Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director of “Jeanne Dielman,” is the first female filmmaker ever to crack Sight and Sound’s top ten; Akerman was just twenty-four years old when the movie premièred at Cannes, in 1975. It is a rigorous, uncompromising film, nearly three and a half hours long, depicting three days in the life of the widowed single mother named in the title (played by Delphine Seyrig), and focussed relentlessly on the domestic tasks that occupy her waking hours: the cooking and cleaning, the wiping and straightening and scrubbing. Jeanne is also a sex worker, hosting a client in the late afternoon each day, although these assignations are—unlike the other tedious labor that she performs—mostly unseen. The Sight and Sound tabulations are a striking turn of events, representing a consensus that one of the pinnacle films ever produced in an overwhelmingly male-dominated art form was made by a young woman, with a crew mostly made up of women, starring a middle-aged woman, about women’s work.

The news of the triumph of “Jeanne Dielman” was, in short, pleasurable. “Jeanne Dielman” itself is not pleasurable, or at least not in any obvious or easy sense. The film’s strength derives in significant part from its austerity, patience, and extreme discipline. Each scene consists of a single, fixed shot, placed a bit lower than the norm. (Akerman was five feet tall, and set up her shots accordingly.) The camera does not move; there are no reaction shots and no closeups. Seyrig is onscreen nearly every minute, usually performing some mundane task in real time: washing dishes, making a bed, peeling potatoes. (Just as I never chop garlic without thinking of Paul Sorvino in “Goodfellas,” I never peel a potato without thinking of Seyrig in “Jeanne Dielman.”) More than four minutes are filled by Jeanne taking a bath and then scrubbing out the tub. Well over five minutes pass as Jeanne and her teen-age son, Sylvain, silently eat a dinner of soup, pot roast, and potatoes. Occasionally, Jeanne leaves her apartment to pay a bill or do a bit of shopping. She reads a letter from an aunt; she chitchats with this neighbor and that one. There is no score, just a bit of radio in the evenings.

I suspect that the Sight and Sound voters who truly love “Jeanne Dielman,” as opposed to merely admiring it (I am in the latter camp, for whatever it’s worth), are those who can enter a meditative state when watching it, who can dissolve their ego into the folds of Jeanne’s shirtdress during the many minutes that we spend watching her from the back as she washes dishes. Meditation is often accomplished through a focus on one’s breathing, and so it’s apt that an especially suspenseful and doom-laden moment in “Jeanne Dielman” comes on the ominousthird day, in a shot of Jeanne simply sitting in a chair in her living room—not knitting or folding or smoothing, just sitting, and Akerman and Seyrig draw us toward the variations and tiny irregularities of Jeanne’s breathing. With each shallow inhalation, one expects something momentous to happen. This is part of the great project of “Jeanne Dielman,” and why so many cinéastes treasure it so fiercely. It sought to redefine everything that makes a film a film: how it establishes tension and tempo, how it defines or disregards plot, whom it chooses as a protagonist. One can watch “Jeanne Dielman” and wait for something to happen, but it already is.

— Jessica Winter, The New Yorker

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Sun March 10, 2:00 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium

Belgium, France; 1976; in French; 202 min, 35mm

Director: Chantal Akerman, Writer: Chantal Akerman, Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Henri Storck, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Yves Bical

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Sun Mar 10, 2024

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

At Muenzinger Auditorium

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