Director: Chantel Akerman
If only there was a musical equivalent to the Sight and Sound once in a decade poll of the world’s greatest films. Imagine 1,639 music critics, academics, curators and archivists from across the world submitting a top-ten poll. If nothing else it creates a list against which all others can be measured. No chance.Sigh.
So, anyway onto the Sight and Sound greatest films of all time list. The 2022 list delivered a thunderbolt by proclaiming Chantel Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Rue Du Commerce, Bruxelles number one. Vertigo, the top one last time, falls to two and Citizen Kane is at three. Surely no-one needs a write-up of either of these but Jeanne Dielman I hear you say. What on earth is that. Take this as the start of an impromptu series working its down the films on the list newer to me, and probably to you too. So no 2001 (no 6) or The Godfather (12) but absolutely yes to Beau Travail (no 7). Can’t promise they will all be in strictly rank order as some are as short as 14 mins, others weigh in at over three hours.
We have a brand new number one. Three hours twenty minutes and a film that most people (me included) will have barely heard of. It dates from 1975 and both its making, subsequent slow burn rise in reputation and coronation represent a recognition that the male gaze (hello Hitch!) has been the default setting for cinema for too long. For me it sits in a long line of experimental films, from The Battle of Algiers to Un Chien Andalou that challenge what the subject matter of a film can and should be. Akerman’s film focuses unapologetically on a woman, the magnificently unknowable Delphine Seyrig and shows her at work. For three hours twenty minutes we see in long static takes a working life that starts at dawn and extends with on brief moments of respite for coffee or to write a letter until bedtime. Jeanne lives in the titular flat with her teenage son. Her husband has died and to make ends meet Jeanne takes in what might be termed ‘gentlemen callers’ each afternoon to keep their middle-class existence going. These callers are only one part of a punishing – yet entirely ordinary – domestic routine that constitutes almost all the action of the film. We see her morning routine which starts with preparing breakfast and shining the shoes for her son before school – a great embodiment of the a narcissism and self-regard of teenagers. From then on her day consists of shopping for food, preparing the evening meal, cleaning the flat and an endless list of daily chores essential to keeping their lives going and performed utterly without recognition or gratitude. If ten minute static scenes consisting of tenderising meat for meatloaf or peeling potatoes sounds gruelling, then that’s the point – we experience this domestic labour in near real-time. There are no cut-aways, incidental music or fancy editing to enliven Akerman’s laser-like focus on the work and the routine.
If the first half sets up an unchanging and virtually identical daily routine, the second half sees it unravel – a lost button for a jacket here and overboiled potatoes there are all it takes to set Jeanne’s world spinning. It’s one of cinema’s great endings, and great final scenes, and to breathe a word would take away its power.
There is so much to look at and take in – for example the mother/son relationship is brilliantly drawn without him saying more than a few words – that I’m sure I will be drawn back for a second viewing. The silent family dinners in which mother and son utterly fail to connect with each other are painful in their truth. Beautiful is not the word, but Akerman’s framing is every bit the equal of Hitchcock or Lynch. Where the camera goes and what it sees are tightly controlled, and piecing together every piece of furniture and domestic appliance is yet another thought train that will occur to you as this film has you mesmerised. The sound design, focusing on sounds such as the clack of Jeanne’ shoes on the polished wooden floors, the coffee grinder and the whistling kettle, contributes to the uneasy heightened feelings that come to dominate. An evening interlude of music from the radio becomes almost unbearably rich. For this film asks if these everyday actions cannot be as worthy a subject of film as car chases and gunfights, if a single flat can’t contain as much of interest as a caper chase across continents. Please do let me know your thoughts, but don’t give away the ending for those who are tempted. We watched it in two ninety-minute sessions and after the first half hour when you have to let go of the need for conventional action, or dialogue, I think you’ll be amazed. On the BFI player.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Other films that stretch the possibilities of the medium. And in a way it’s an answer to Belle Du Jour – in which an old male director films an impossibly beautiful middle-class woman who embarks on a career as a prostitute as she’s bored. Here a young female director films an impossibly beautiful middle-class woman who …..