Starting in 1952, the British Film Institute (BFI) has published a decennial Sight & Sound poll of the 100 greatest movies ever made. Last year, in the name of that lunacy called “equity,” the BFI dramatically lowered its standards to open the poll up to people who have no business rubbing elbows with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Sofia Coppola, John Carpenter, and Walter Hill. Predictably, the 2022 results of this once-admired poll are not only absurd, the results were rigged. We now know a bunch of woketards conspired to game the poll to ensure a “feminist” film directed by a woman landed in first place.
That movie is the late Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which I saw decades ago and watched again this week.
Jeanne Dielman is a movie easily ridiculed—a 201-minute foreign film with no musical score, no close-ups, and extremely long takes where the camera never moves. If that’s not enough material for ridicule, everyone speaks French.
Back in December, when the now-diminished Sight & Sound results were released, I wrote this about “The Greatest Movie Ever Made”:
Regarding the new number one, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxel (1975), let’s not play games… It’s there because a woman directed it. That’s not merit. That’s identity. Jeanne Dielman is an intriguing movie. It does cast a spell, but it’s a rough sit and every bit as long (200 minutes) as its title. We spend nearly four hours watching a prostitute go through a handful of mundane days (cooking, cleaning, etc.) until she snaps. I get the point, but I could have gotten the point in half the time. If Sight & Sound’s film illiterates insisted on having a woman at the top, I can think of five superior Kathryn Bigelow movies.
Here are my thoughts after a second look…
Jeanne Dielman’s plot is deceptively simple. Our protagonist, Jeanne Dielman (an outstanding and alluring Delphine Seyrig), is a 40-ish, unmarried widow living in a small apartment in Brussels with her bookish and entitled teenage son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte).
Jeanne’s mundane life is built on her obsessive need for routine. Over two-and-a-half days, using only medium shots, we watch Jeanne march through this routine, including a male client’s daily arrival.
To make ends meet, Jeanne has turned to prostitution.
Once you understand where the plot is headed, Jeanne Dielman’s first hour unspools like the movie Gambit (1966), where we see how a complicated heist should happen. This allows us to appreciate how badly the actual heist goes. In this same vein, the first hour of Jeanne Dielman establishes how our protagonist’s day is supposed to unfurl. In takes as long as five minutes, we watch the precise and tidy Jeanne cook, clean, greet her client, make the bed, fold clothes, take a bath, scrub the tub, set the table, greet her son, spoon out supper, knit a sweater, make coffee, shine shoes, and wash dishes.
Without saying so, the tightly-wound Jeanne Dielman obviously sees her routine as a ritual.
It’s been said that movies are real life with the boring parts removed. Jeanne Dielman is, by design, the antithesis of that. We see only the boring parts. The interesting parts, like what happens between the hooker and the client in the bedroom, are removed.
As days two and three unfold, what Akerman (who also wrote the script) has in mind becomes clear. Because hour one familiarized us with Jeanne’s perfect routine, the smallest deviations from that routine (a dropped spoon, a light left on, a dish left uncovered) take on the kind of dramatic weight that has you asking, What’s going on? Where is this headed? Naturally, these questions draw you into the story. Suddenly these tedious chores take on a larger meaning. Yesterday (within the timeframe of the move), watching Jeanne wash dishes for five minutes had you stirring in your seat. Today, you’re thinking, Oh, no! She forgot to rinse the plates!
Jeanne never raises her voice, never hurries, or expresses much of anything. Like the changes in her routine, what’s roiling within her is hardly noticeable. This is a woman who prides herself on self-control. So when she goes to a café, and her usual table is occupied, there’s not even a scowl. Nevertheless, we do sense her tighten up a bit. Then she orders a coffee and leaves without drinking it. That might not seem like much, but it is everything in the context of this Kubrickian starkness.
Finally, after more than three hours, the big event happens. Then you rewind the movie in your head and realize you were watching a woman coming unglued.
To say that I admired Jeanne Dielman more this time would be an understatement.
Is it “The Greatest Movie Ever Made?” No. But it is unquestionably a great movie, a bold and unique work deserving of respect. Jeanne Dielman did two things great art does: First, it cast a spell and held it (I was mesmerized). Second, rather than tell me what to think, it made me think.
And when I say it made me think, I don’t just mean about what might happen next.… At the risk of sounding ridiculous, it made me think about life.
Here’s what I mean…
Most every review of Jeanne Dielman I’ve come across reads like this…
Jeanne Dielman is a window into a world hidden from male (and professional) society, and defined by rigorous repetition and estrangement. Abandoned by the death of her husband, barely looked at by her entitled son, and treated as a sexual commodity by her customers, Jeanne is a woman subtly used and abused. She’s truly alone, and Akerman’s fixed gaze and unswerving consideration elicits empathy for her tedious and thankless life. In doing so, it also generates outrage on behalf of her and all those who endure similar monotonous fates. Beneath its ordinary and tempered façade, Jeanne Dielman simmers with feminist indignation at a socio-cultural paradigm that relegates so many to exploitation—or, as evoked by Jeanne’s mechanical movements and passive countenance, to live as obedient automatons.
Well, that’s not what I saw… In fact, I find the widely held feminist interpretation of Jeanne Dielman absurd and counterfactual. Here are the facts…
Jeanne Dielman is a healthy, attractive young woman born into the mid-20th century with enough to eat, a comfortable apartment with electricity, modern appliances, and hot and cold running water. What’s more, she’s not isolated. On the contrary, she lives in the middle of a modern city. Most importantly, as the spare exposition informs us, Jeanne Dielman chose to get married, have a child, and remain unmarried after her husband’s death six years ago.
In other words, Jeanne Dielman is not a victim of the patriarchy or a “socio-cultural paradigm that relegates so many to exploitation.” The only thing Jeanne Dielman is a victim of is her own choices.
Yes, her son treats her like a servant. Well, whose fault is that? She raised the kid.
Is it society’s fault she’s a hooker? The movie itself makes clear that the answer is a firm no. As Jeanne goes about her daily chores, almost every working person she encounters is a woman. Therefore, nothing is stopping Jeanne from getting a respectable job.
Writing for Criterion, author Ivone Marguiles points to a moment involving one of Jeanne’s neighbors to make her case that Jeanne Dielman is a story of feminist oppression:
[T]he neighbor, heard by the door (and played by Akerman herself), describes how, shopping for her husband’s dinner, and still undecided, she ended up getting the same expensive cut of meat as the person in front of her on line. Never casual, each of the film’s uniquely strange and long-winded monologues expresses some form of gendered pressure[.]
But, again, that’s not what I saw…
Above and beyond our protagonist being a victim of her own choices, the scene with the neighbor explores a thematic strain of existentialism in Jeanne Dielman. This sad, neurotic, and unseen woman, this disembodied voice on the other side of a door, is a housewife and new mother so desperate to talk to someone—anyone—that she babbles on about standing in line at the butcher shop. From where I sit, this has nothing to do with repression or “gendered pressure.” Instead, it speaks to the emptiness of a modern life where abundance spoils us, softens us, and strips us of a sense of purpose.
In this short, touching, and brilliantly written monologue, the neighbor expresses the despair of a life filled with so many choices that what kind of meat to purchase becomes a luxury neurosis.
If Jeanne Dielman and her mousy neighbor are victims of anything, it’s ingratitude. Both are blessed to live in modern-day Western Civilization. Additionally, they are blessed with youth, health, and, yes, children. Nevertheless, both are so spoiled they despair.
I’ll ask again: whose fault is that?
Nothing is stopping either woman from taking classes or going to the library to immerse themselves in the beauty of art and/or learning. This is especially true of Jeanne, whose son is a full-time student. She has all day to take advantage of the countless pleasures the modern world offers. Instead, she chooses the life she lives. While I sympathize with whatever blinds her to the opportunities available for the taking, I blame only her.
Finally, Jeanne Dielman explores the horrors of godlessness. Religion is never once mentioned. Maybe that’s the point. This is a woman entering middle age without God, a mother a few years away from an empty nest without faith. Jeanne Dielman is staring into the abyss without hope, which can drive anyone crazy.
Chantal Akerman’s own life is proof that her masterpiece cannot possibly be about female oppression. On top of repeatedly saying Jeanne Dielman is not a feminist film, Akerman was a self-made filmmaker and only 25 when she made Jeanne Dielman. How could someone so accomplished honestly see Western women as victims?
Here’s my takeaway after spending 201 minutes with the character of Jeanne Dielman: Good heavens, lady, you have it all, and still, you whore yourself out and appreciate nothing. Thank you for reminding me to appreciate life, the people in my life, and my faith.
To be clear, I am not saying those who interpret Jeanne Dielman as a feminist statement are wrong. There is no right or wrong when interpreting art. There is only agreement or disagreement. The fact that different people can see the same movie differently is a credit to Akerman’s accomplishment. As I said above, great artists don’t tell us what to think. They make us think.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is not for everyone. You have to meet it on its own terms, which is challenging, but it is unquestionably a masterwork deserving of a place among our great movies, even if that place is not number one.
The tragedy here is that by abusing their invitation, a group of woketards not only proved they weren’t mature and sophisticated enough to contribute to Sight & Sound, they forever undermined a legitimate classic by ensuring it will be remembered only as a cheat, as the notorious beneficiary of a dishonest act of affirmative action.
The movie deserves better.
So does its creator.
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