In December 2022, the magazine Sight&Soundwith a monthly circulation and published by the British Film Institute, He released his list of the best films in history, the one he releases every decade. Back in 2012, the publication, after consulting 846 experts and critics, came to the conclusion that Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ was the best feature film of all time, thus breaking the six decades that ‘Citizen Kane’ had been leading. the list. The reign of the film by the acclaimed British filmmaker has lasted much less, given that in 2022 it was ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’, by the Belgian Chantal Akerman, which crowned the listafter having consulted 1639 professionals from all over the world.
It was crowned like this in the best film in history for the renowned British publication and the first by a woman. A feature film that had its premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight of the 28th Cannes Film Festival in 1975, where it already obtained important recognition that, over the years, has been constantly growing, turning the film into one of the most praised works of the Belgian filmmaker, considered one of the fundamental pieces of cinematographic feminism, along with Marguerite Duras. Both, precisely, have been characterized by having a look at female reality that is not complacent, going to the margins and exploring situations that are uncomfortable to watch.
Released at the end of February on the Filmin platform, the streaming service has taken advantage of this March 8, International Women’s Day, to bring to commercial theaters a feature film that Sight & Sound magazine has led in a list that not only led ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Citizen Kane’, but also ‘The bicycle thief’, an emblem of Italian neorealism. In the case of ‘Jeanne Dielman’, this cult work has been characterized as one of the greatest exponents of Slow Cinema, enjoying a purely minimalist style, focused on observation and in which the narrative is reduced to a minimum. , focusing on the three days of an empty woman devoid of any emotion, whose actions will gradually lead to an inhospitable experience.
Akerman achieved something that, in later years, was emulated by other filmmakers: hypnotize and create expectation with fixed shots that show the daily chores of a housewife. These are actions whose cinematographic presence is insignificant and only appear as a precedent for a greater event. But Akerman chooses to put it as a central focus. That yes, to say that ‘Jeanne Dielman’, in its 201 minutes duration, is only a succession of fixed shots of mechanical actions would be too reductionist.
a hypnotic portrait
The feature film only shows the three days of a middle-aged woman, a widow, a housewife and whose maxim is to take care of her 16-year-old adolescent son. Akerman gives it a shady addition, after her morning chores (which includes taking care of the baby of a neighbor who works in the mornings), she works as a prostitute. The money she receives for these sexual favors is what keeps the family economy afloat. In fact, in the contemplative act, a house can be appreciated that depresses more than anything else. Small in size (the son has no room and sleeps on a sofa bed in a living room overloaded with furniture), There is only a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and a hall, which speaks volumes about the fragile economic situation of the widow.
However, Akerman does not justify the reasons why Mrs. Dielman practices prostitution instead of finding another type of economic or labor resource. It’s more, it leaves the public free interpretation of that choice, since it hardly explains the past of that woman, leaving only the facts of the three days that it captures. Through apparently repetitive actions, the filmmaker captures the living death of a woman who does not know what pleasure is. Something as simple as going to a cafeteria and having a coffee with milk, Dielman does automatically, looking into space instead of appreciating the place or while she is distracted by reading the press or a book.
Akerman shows a woman incapable of transmitting any emotion, with herself and for others, involved in a dynamic that has consumed her. Many reasons can be sought for Dielman’s life to have ended like this, being the most explicit that middle-aged women of the 1970s had been raised to have their fates sealed: to be good mothers, wives, and housewives. In fact, Akerman places special emphasis on this, showing a woman who has a helpful relationship with her offspring and how even the latter believes he is the owner of his parent’s sexuality (which even raises the question of whether the decision to Dielman to give his body in exchange for money is an unconscious and dangerous way of rebellion).
Nevertheless, the film is much more, showing a mysterious and hypnotic protagonist, whose actions lead her to enter an obsessive spiral, showing how her balance can be so fragile that her whole world falls apart just because she overcooked her potatoes for dinner after serving a customer. Here, Akerman plays with the card of not fully revealing the character of her protagonist, as soon as her past is known, nor is it revealed what led her to be dead in life. The kitchen becomes a patriarchal prison, true, but Akerman responds with an uncomfortable narrative, which also does not invite empathy with Dielman.
In that hieratic portrait of a woman, whom Akerman always portrays with a distance, the filmmaker flaunts that far from complacent look at the female reality and how the weariness of a life sentence can turn an apparently kind housewife into a bomb about to explode. The division by days allows seeing Mrs. Dielman’s descent into hell, thus allowing the public many readings. On the other hand, it is worth noting the mastery that the filmmaker has in terms of knowing how to maintain intrigue in mundane actions, almost typical of the Slice of Life cinema.
Of course, the way of executing it produces an atmosphere of suspense, with certain touches of terror (such as the moments in which Dielman acts as a babysitter). That power of Akerman is seen again for creating a stale climate, in which a mixture of bitterness, despair, resignation and hatred is felt. All this with actions as simple as going through half of Brussels to find a button, throwing two cups of coffee to prepare more or going back to the room and back to the kitchen for no apparent reason.
One of the greatest exponents of Slow cinema
A series of actions Delphine Seyrig transmits in various ways. She makes Dielman a mix of undead and automaton, performing his duties both mechanically and ceremoniously., as if he was preparing his own act of seppuku. Given the inexpression that she must maintain at all times, it is one of the most accomplished works by an interpreter who has worked with other greats such as Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel, François Truffaut, Fred Zinnemann and the aforementioned Marguerite Duras.
With masterful attention to detail, Akerman also shows exceptional technical care. The assembly, signed by Patricia Canino, works like a Swiss watch; the photography, with Babette Mangolte in the direction, brings cold tones that delve into the empty feeling of her protagonist; its production design is also calculated to the millimeter, work of Philippe Graff as artistic director. In addition to having a wardrobe of aseptic colors whose flashes of color, Dielman’s scarf or his red hair, are buried in an apartment that looks like a prison.
Akerman belongs to that wave of European filmmakers from the 70s, at a time when there were controversial women filmmakers like Liliana Cavani or the consolidation of the political cinema of Lina Wermüller; not to mention Agnès Varda, whose impulse and recognition she was a decade ago, as she was one of the cornerstones of the Nouvelle vague. The Belgian filmmaker marked another type of vision and that is precisely what makes ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ an essential title of the seventh art. Beyond controversies and lists that make up the consensus of a specific group of experts, Akerman’s work goes further, inviting an exceptional cinematographic experience that is both immersive and uncomfortable, cinema in its purest state, with that gaze that cannot be does not ask for permission or seek to engage the mass public, whose intentions are honest. A masterpiece.
The best: Akerman’s ability to capture with fixed sequences and a setting that reflects the anxieties and terrors of his protagonist.
Worst: It is arthouse cinema at its best. It does not deceive and it is an honest proposal, but for those who do not like this type of production, it will cause great rejection.