I’m forever playing catch-up, so years ago when I walked into my first viewing of the 1975 drama Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, all I knew was that I probably should see this movie I’d heard of. What I didn’t know was anything else. Its plot. Its significance aside from its brilliant Belgian director, Chantal Akerman. The fact that it’s 201 minutes long (yes, that’s almost three and a half hours).
I discovered the runtime a couple minutes before it started and flinched. But, having texted my husband that I’d be late for dinner, I settled in. And was instantly mesmerized.
I can’t tell you why. Not because I don’t know, but because the experience taught me that this is a movie it’s best to see knowing as little as possible. I can tell you that it’s long, and for much of its runtime, it’s extremely boring. That is, precisely, the point — and if you’re ready to lean into patience, you’ll be rewarded.
The experience of watching Jeanne Dielman (its short, typable name) has never left me, which is why I included it on my ballot for the Sight and Sound “greatest films of all time” poll. The survey of curators, programmers, archivists, and critics (1,639 this year) happens only once a decade, and this was the first year I was invited to participate. Many months later, the results have been released, and they’re honestly a bit shocking. Jeanne Dielman beat out Citizen Kane (the 2002 winner), Vertigo (the 2012 winner), Tokyo Story, In the Mood for Love, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, plus several thousand other films.
There are lots of factors that led to this point. The movie is astounding, to be sure. Akerman, its director, who is a pioneer of feminist filmmaking, died in 2015, three years after the last poll. The film also was restored and re-released in the Criterion Collection in 2017, which means people like me who hadn’t seen it previously (we didn’t all go to film school) got a chance to do so in theaters. And the pool of voters from which the final list was drawn has been diversified since 2012, so it’s possible that helped with a film that is, undoubtedly, an ur-text of feminist film.
But I don’t want to discount the fact that Jeanne Dielman offers something unique: it runs against the grain of the frenetic, effects-heavy, plot-driven cinema world we now inhabit. It treats its audience like adults, people who have developed the ability to pay attention to something without looking at a second screen every three minutes. It’s repetitive. It feels like watching time. It does not explain what it is about because it thinks you will watch long enough to learn. It barely has any dialogue. There are no jokes. It has no references to the outside world, no story that can be turned into a franchise. You don’t want to watch a sequel to Jeanne Dielman.
But it’s also the kind of movie that, while you can watch it at home, absolutely begs to be seen in a cinema next to a dozen other people. (Hard to imagine a bigger audience than that.) Not for big-screen eyepoppers or huge sound effects, but because there are a few moments you have to be watching intently to catch and, then, you’ll gasp.
If I sound like I’m being vague, it’s because I am. If you’re ready to watch Jeanne Dielman, then I want you to go in as unspoiled as possible. A movie like this one is a little like a training ground for experiencing art. It asks you to enter without expectations, to sit quietly and get yourself out of the way, to fidget and feel antsy and stay and see what the movie wants to give you. There are vanishingly few movies like this anymore — certainly next to none being produced in Hollywood.
And if 1,639 people who spend their lives getting paid very little to preserve and curate and explore cinema say this is the best movie ever made — at least in this poll — then isn’t it worth a shot?
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including Amazon, Apple TV+, and Vudu. It’s also available to stream on the Criterion Channel, along with many other poll winners, and HBO Max.