A nostalgic visit with the ‘Greatest Movie Of All Time’
It shocked me and the rest of the film world last week to learn that the every-decade Sight and Sound critics poll had named the 1975 experimental Belgian feminist movie ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,’ as the greatest film of all time. Not a good film, or a great film, or an interesting film that subverts male-driven narrative structures. But the actual greatest movie ever made. Here I’d grown up thinking that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie, probably because it topped the Sight and Sound list until 2012, at which point Vertigo became the greatest movie. But I had seen those movies. I had not seen ‘Jeanne Dielman,’ even though all three hours and 21 minutes of it lurked on my Criterion Channel app, reminding me that I must pay attention. Last night, I submitted.
Going in, I had thought that ‘Jeanne Dielman’ was a movie about the dull daily routine of a sad Belgian housewife in 1975. This isn’t quite accurate. Jeanne Dielman, played by the almost shockingly beautiful Delphine Seyrig, is actually a widow. And she doesn’t take care of a house, it’s actually a small one-bedroom flat, which she shares with her phlegmatic teenage son, Sylvain. She dotes on him with a level of detail and rigor that he clearly doesn’t deserve. When Sylvain is at school, which is most of the time, Jeanne Dielman does the shopping and the housework and occasionally stops off for a coffee. She chats with neighbors who are even sadder than she is.
Also, late every afternoon, a different man comes over to her apartment and has sex with her, for money, on top of a towel that she lays over her hideous green bedspread. This is a compelling premise for a movie, especially in 1975, when cinematic prostitutes tended to be sexy hookers with hearts of gold instead of proper middle-class Belgian ladies trying to keep waterzooi on the table.
Director Chantal Akerman, who was quite clearly a genius, films everything with low, static shots. There is no soundtrack. Long stretches go by with no dialogue at all. Jeanne takes a bath, which should be sexy but isn’t, and then scours the tub, which shouldn’t be sexy but is. In this scene, she peels a potato, and both she and the potato give stunning performances.
At this point, I think I need to get across what it’s like to watch Jeanne Dielman. Here are some notes I texted to my snarky friend text thread while I was watching it:
“I am watching Jeanne Dielman, The Greatest Movie of All Time. So far Jeanne Dielman has taken a bath, made two meals, done the dishes twice, brushed her hair, run some errands, and turned the lights on and off in her flat 100 times. Only two hours to go. Her son is a student. He sleeps on the sofabed. We get to listen to him recite a Baudelaire poem from memory. Twice. She has also been a prostitute two times, but we don’t see that, we just see the light change in the foyer.
Now she is making dinner again. She made her bed. She made the shit out of that bed. Then she went to another store. They are eating soup again. It is pea soup. We watch them eat the entire bowl. She is knitting the ugly brown sweater again. The next day she went to so many stores and the place that sells stamps was closed so she couldn’t send a letter to her sister in Canada.”
You get the picture. The film ends with an act of “shocking violence” that isn’t very shocking because every article about Jeanne Dielman mentions the act of shocking violence.
What do I have to add to the ‘Jeanne Dielman’ discourse? Not much, I suppose. But I do bring some perspective because I, unlike most people, actually lived in Brussels in 1975. My father had a job there. But now that I look at the address, I see that we actually lived in a fancy Flemish suburb. My memories of Brussels mostly revolve around my parents having loud cocktail parties with a posh international set of professionals, and all the men had thick mustaches. My mother, who was never fond of housework, had a poster of the city’s slogan at the time, “Brussels Is Love.” And boy, did she live by that motto.
Brussels is Not Love for Jeanne Dielman. She is one lonely gal. Her address is in the center of the city, or at least near the center of the city. When I look at a current Google Street View of 23 Quai du Commerce, it appears to have gentrified somewhat. But at the time of filming, it was a decidedly drab, middle-class address.
I’ve seen ‘Jeanne Dielman’ described as the most feminist movie ever made, an evisceration of the banality of women’s work. And there’s truth to that. On the other hand, it takes place 50 years ago. Jeanne has no appliances that I can see. The apartment contains no television. At no point does anyone use a telephone. She runs a ridiculous amount of errands. At one point, looking to fix her son’s coat, she visits four different stores that specialize in buttons. We might as well be watching a Moldovan peasant woman milking her goats.
A note to people in 2022 who’re watching ‘Jeanne Dielman’ while “doing housework“. Are you doing housework without appliances? Can you get your groceries delivered in a pinch? Do your kids help you? If not, why? Are economic circumstances forcing you into prostitution to pay for your ungrateful son’s veal cutlet? No? Then this movie isn’t about you. While there’s something to be said for the enduring oppression of housework, I can also say with 100 percent certainty that I cook several meals a week, often go to grocery stores, and do the dishes every night, run a bunch of other meaningless errands, and I’m not, the last time I checked, a woman. We all have our dumb chores to do, and pretty much none of us, at this point, are widows from a loveless World War 2-era marriage. I watched Jeanne Dielman later in the evening, after the chores were done, while drinking orange juice and snarkily texting with my friends. As one does in the modern day.
This may be inherent male bias coming through, but I prefer movies that have plots and action and maybe some humor and melodrama, and an octopus playing the drums. Jean Dielman, on the other hand, has a lot of dialogue-free scenes of the main character doing the dishes. It’s a largely dialogue-free film, with all the the dialogue that does exist in French, that features an (admittedly sexy) six-minute scene of Jeanne making a meatloaf. At times ‘Jeanne Dielman’ plays like an unintentional parody of what Americans think foreign films are like. But I’m glad I saw it, because now I can have conversations about it, which is all that matters.
My final takeaway: In 1975, everything in Brussels was brown and green and cold and hideous. It’s a nice place to visit on the Criterion Channel, one time, for three hours and 21 minutes. But I wouldn’t want to live there again.