Full name Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The triviality of the name is important.
So, if you are a movie fan, you know why I’m talking about this right now even though the movie is 47 years old. If you somehow missed it, this movie was the winner of Sight and Sound critics poll in 2022. It’s a big shakeup. If you are interested in the history of the list, you can find all the previous top 10s here. In short, the first movie to win was Bicycle Thieves in 1952, after which Citizen Kane dominated by winning five times in a row, after which Vertigo won in 2012 and now Jeanne Dielman jumped from 35 to number 1.
This is probably due to expanded pool of critics in 2012, which allowed for a bunch of new films to enter the list, which I would assume encouraged a lot of critics to see this movie as well, which in turn meant a lot more people voted for it. I mean, the previous list motivated me to see it, although I wasn’t able to find it, so I was not able to see it until tonight, as the local art house theatre had a screening.
Now, I did try to suppress my expectations. I mean, if you are told you are about to watch the best movie of all time, you are going to be somewhat skeptic and it can work against your enjoyment. Of course, not all movies strive to be enjoyable. This one definitely doesn’t. Still, you do need to understand that the list is based on consensus, which is reached through voting, so it doesn’t represent the views of any specific critic. I do think the votes are public (at least I seem to remember reading about them back in the day, or it might have been the directors’ poll, which is separate and for some reason less talked about, even though as the audience we can probably name many more of the directors than the critics), so if you want to try to figure this out, it might be possible, but I’m not going to.
The movie was actually good, I would even categorize it as very good, but it is one of those movies you can’t really recommend freely, as it is not to everyones taste. And here’s another thing: Chantal Akerman, the director, killed herself. While this happened 40 years later in 2015, I couldn’t help but let this information affect my feelings on the movie while watching it. And if you see this movie, you will see why.
The movie is about Jeanne Dielman, a widow and a mother of a teenage boy. I don’t know how old she is supposed to be, but the actress was 43 at the time. She lives a very regimented life, where everything seems to be planned out and executed meticulously. This includes her work as a prostitute. The story takes place over three consecutive days, where we see what I would assume would be her normal day, but something seems to be wrong during the next day and things get worse on the third.
And in this sense this is a remarkable movie. If I remember correctly, the first day takes roughly 75 minutes, during which she cooks, cleans, has dinner with her son, goes on an evening walk, listens to the radio, bathes and so forth. Very routine. Even her encounter with her client (she seems to have scheduled one for every weekday) seems to be part of her routine (although we don’t get to see what happens in the bedroom until day three).
Yet, this is all important, because we need to see this to be able to contrast the next two days to how the first day went. On the second day it starts to seem like she finds herself missing something. Her life is just empty routine with no end in sight and this realization seems to have hit her after her son asked her about his father. Weirdly, the movie does manage to maintain my attention long enough for me to understand why all this is important. The movie is also around 3 hours and 20 minutes long (in Europe), so it not given that anyone can keep up with the movie for that long.
The movie clearly has a feminist point of view. Women are often put into this position, where they are supporting characters. Jeanne doesn’t even really have anyone to support. She only has her son, who definitely isn’t a main character of this story, as he is barely present. So, basically she is doing all this for nothing.
Is this the best movie of all time? Probably not. Again, it is very good. Does it need to be the best movie ever to top the list? Not really. I mean, I am personally glad to have seen this movie, but if it didn’t make the top of this list, my opportunities to see it would have been pretty bad. So, even if it is not the best movie of all time, at least that position hopefully encourages others as well to see what the deal is. There were more people at my screening than there usually are at this particular theatre and other arthouse theatres are also showing it. I do think it is an important movie and that’s the real benefit of such lists. (Of course you need to maintain some credibility.)