Killing Time with Jeanne Dielman

By James Kent

One of the most startling and thrilling moments in all of cinema occurs thirty-four minutes into Sight & Sound’s newly crowned champion of cinema, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Jeanne Dielman, the titular heroine of director Chantal Ackerman’s lauded work, after a day of boiling potatoes, receiving a male client for an afternoon session, and fetching dinner in the most exacting of preparations for her college-aged, disinterested son, Sylvain, something magical happens; the pair leave their apartment.

The moment is startling because more than a half-hour into this epic tome about the mundane, you, the viewer, are thrust into a new brain space. You’ve awakened from your cocoon of restlessness where you’ve waited, mediated, perhaps prayed, for anything plot-related to happen. Jeanne and Sylvian leave their apartment and board the old, gated elevator, which one may only find today in an apartment in Brussels, and hit the street. Adventure awaits. New sights. Perhaps new sounds. Anything to escape the repeated pattern of glowing blue lights shining into the dining area of Jeanne Dielman’s tiny, one-bedroom apartment. You are free.

In one of the many of this film’s cruel tricks, the street is so poorly lit by Ackerman’s lighting crew it is impossible to make out Jeanne and Sylvian. Perhaps a person with exceptional eyesight will steal a glimpse of their shadow as the scene plays out much longer than any scene so poorly lit should be allowed to go on. Before we learn where the odd pair is going, we are back in the hallway to Jeanne Dielman’s apartment entrance. Jeanne and Sylvian have returned from their nighttime fun, and the thrill is gone.

If you weren’t already feeling conned by this movie, somewhere between minutes thirty-six and thirty-eight, you’d be fully aware that this is the journey you’ll be on for the next one hundred and sixty minutes left to watch. And trust me, you’ll be counting every minute.

I have many questions regarding Sight & Sound’s 2022 Critics Poll of the Top 100 films. The list, by design, will cause debate. The process Sight & Sound undertook to craft the list appears less designed to name the greatest films of all time than to represent some amalgamation of essential works of cinema that fully represent a wide range of countries, eras, sexes, and nationalities of the filmmakers who made these movies. Naming Jeanne Dielman the most significant film in all of cinema may not have been the intention set forth by Sight & Sound when they hired a consultant to game the process and destroy the status quo, but it is the result. And it is the cruelest fate to befall Jeanne Dielman in the forty-seven years since its release.

Why is it cruel? Because it unleashes Ackerman’s slow meditation on a depressed, lonely widow, stuck in the endless repetition of housework and purposelessness, on an unsuspecting new audience who will seek it out for the mere fact it was named best of all time. There is an expectation, fair or unfair that the film will be great. Citizen Kane bared the brunt of this label for decades, and it got used to the debate. It was well-equipped to handle the wrath of new viewers, examining its every frame for clues as to why esteemed critics found it the most significant work of all of cinema. Jeanne Dielman may not be ready for her moment in the spotlight. All the goodwill it built over the decades may be erased as new cinephiles flock to revival houses for a peek. Or for those firing up their Criterion Channel hungry to become the fly-on-the-wall for three days in the life of the loneliest screen persona since Harry Caul will soon discover, the movie, by design, is quite dull.

I’d heard about Jeanne Dielman for a while now. It sat in my Criterion Channel queue for a couple of years. I gave it a try a couple of years back, eager to experience more Delphine Seyrig after a haunting watch of Daughters of Darkness. I got through fifteen minutes. Or was it twenty? Time can get away from you when you watch Jeanne Dielman. I had to start from scratch when taking the Dielman challenge for the second time.

Admittedly, the best way to experience Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman is in a theater. Trapped inside a movie theater where you’ve purchased a ticket for the film leaves you with no escape; you must put yourself through the paces of Jeanne Dielman’s three days with no interruptions (save a bathroom or a trip to the lobby for caffeine.) I’ve heard seeing this film with an audience can be a cathartic experience because you are not alone in your misery. Sometimes someone in the audience will break; an amusing moment of observation can turn into fits of hysterical laughter. Having seen the entire film, I can only imagine how the movie could turn into an audience participation fun-fest with Jeanne Dielman cosplay and audience members roaming the aisles with pots of potatoes or clutching double-hooked knitting needles. That could be refreshing. I might even turn up for a screen like that.

But I will be honest. That is different from how I got through Jeanne Dielman. I made it to the finish line in chunks. It was the only way I could do it. I am a self-proclaimed lover of what I call paint-drying movies. Boring doesn’t scare me the way it might a person fed on a steady diet of whatever Marvel phase we’re on now. But Jeanne Dielman is no ordinary paint-drying movie; it’s the grandmother of all paint-drying movies. If Jeanne Dielman had thought to paint her apartment during one of these three days, rest assured, you’d be able to watch the paint dry, and Ackerman would have gladly given you an additional hour or two to make sure the room was good and ready for a second coat.

To say this movie is a tough sit isn’t descriptive enough to do it justice. Even its throngs of adoring critic fans will come clean with the fact that this film is challenging to watch. Should the greatest film of all time be a challenge to sit through? I don’t know the answer to that question. I lean on the side that says no.

Along this epic journey to complete Jeanne Dielman, I frequently texted my podcast collaborator, Teal, with jokes about the movie to let him know how outraged I was that this film was sitting atop the pinnacle of cinematic greatness. I was angry. The list found no place for Lawrence of Arabia, one of the grandest experiences I’ve had in a movie theater. Instead, it gave us as its number one, a three hour and twenty-minute examination of a woman who spends an enormous amount of screen time peeling potatoes, preparing veal, searching for matching yarn to finish her son’s sweater, and stoking up the space heater in her living room/son’s bedroom. Jeanne Dielman is now considered the most significant cinematic work in history. It becomes impossible to separate the film from its praise.

A funny thing happened along the way, as hour after hour elapsed; my brain started to adjust. The constant repetition of action, I use this word loosely, began to imprint itself on my psyche. I got to know every detail of Jeanne Dielman’s apartment, every color, every prop, and every picture on the wall. While Jeanne Dielman did whatever she did during the day, my eyes wandered around her. I didn’t focus on Delphine Seyrig; my eye became the camera, using its built-in zoom to look behind her while she sat at the kitchen table. I thought about the intentional glowing blue light beaming into the living room in a never-ceasing pattern of strobes. Where was this light coming from? Would I ever see the building causing this intrusion into Jeanne and Sylvian’s sparse dinner conversations? There were more moments when Jeanne left the apartment at night when I searched for this building every time. I never found it.

The film reveals only cursory details about Jeanne and her life. We know her husband passed away six years ago. We know she has a sister in Canada who would like Jeanne to visit her. We know her son is a thoughtless creep. We see every day, Jeanne receives a male customer for sex. We don’t see these sexual exchanges until the film’s final moments, but we know they occur. There are a lot of blanks left to fill, and while killing time with Jeanne Dielman, you, the viewer, fill in those blanks. It’s impossible not to.

Is there a payoff to all this space madness? Yes, there is, and I won’t spoil that for anyone reading who hasn’t seen the movie. Unfortunately, I had read enough about the film before watching it that I did know how all the pieces would fit together. If you can watch the movie without knowing all the plot, I use the term plot with some irony; you may get a more rewarding experience. Though I don’t think I would be surprised if I had not known. Delphine Seyrig’s performance as Jeanne Dielman is subtle but revealing. You see the walls closing around her, even though Ackerman uses no cinematic tricks to convey this. She’s cracking up, and you know this because after three-plus hours watching this movie, you are also starting to crack up. You want out of this existence. You want to escape from the prison of these apartment walls as much as Dielman does.

When the film’s final moments unfold, you may find yourself puzzled at Dielman’s actions, or perhaps you fully understand. It depends on the backstory you’ve created for Jeanne Dielman throughout her three days. My theory working theory: Jeanne Dielman is locked in time and unable to deal with the loss of her husband. She clings to her son, the last representation of her husband, and life before he died. The son has outgrown her; soon, he will leave. When he moves on, she’ll have nothing, not that I imagine her life was all different when her husband was alive. She prostitutes herself to keep the pair afloat, or does she? I look at these daily transactions as a way for Dielman to recreate a physical connection with a man and experience something akin to being alive. It doesn’t appear she gets any pleasure or feeling from these encounters until her final customer. Here we see the only bit of emotion Jeanne Dielman displays throughout the entire movie, and these feelings awaken something in her. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Emotions are released to unleash the dam that’s been cracking for a long before we enter her world. It is Dielman’s downfall as much as it is her escape.

I mentioned it is nearly impossible for me to separate the experience of watching Jeanne Dielman from its placement as Sight and Sound’s greatest film. It may be great as a film experiment; one no director has thought to repeat since 1975. It could contain one of the most intricate character portrayals in film history, and that I cannot deny. Jeanne Dielman feels real to me, and I don’t think I will ever forget her. I give points to any movie that can create that type of imprint. Still, the film does not possess any of the cinematic greatness I look for in a movie. The cinematography is poor, even by cinema verité standards. The sound is not great either. When asked to spend three hours and twenty minutes in an apartment watching someone, there should be an expectation that the lighting is at least halfway decent.

Again, I feel for Ackerman. From what I’ve read, she did not have total selection approval of the all-female crew who went on this journey with her. The crew had varying degrees of expertise, and Ackerman worked with what she had to make her vision come to life. And make no mistake, this movie is the product of one director’s vision. This movie was a seminal work in film history when women had few opportunities to direct films. You’ll get no argument from me. But the greatest film of all time? I don’t think had I been old enough to see the movie in 1975, I’d have placed it in my top ten that year. 1975 was an excellent year for film. A small film called Jaws comes to mind. That is a film that changed cinema forever. It announced the arrival of one of the most successful film directors of all time, Steven Spielberg, who Sight and Sound’s poll could find no room for in 2022.

So, let the debate rage. People are going to see Jeanne Dielman now, and if landing on number one in a poll of movie critics is what it takes for a new generation of film lovers to seek out a film that might otherwise go unnoticed, I’m glad. Otherwise, it probably would have lingered in my Criterion Channel list for a long time. Suppose we can digest Netflix’s Wednesday over a long weekend. In that case, it isn’t such an uphill task to consider spending three-plus hours in a Brussels apartment watching Delphine Seyrig make a pettifor dress look spectacular. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. I heard all the rumors that Jeanne Dielman was a tough sit, and the rumors are true. Though is it a more challenging sit than watching Thor: Love and Thunder? Having seen both films this year, I’d rather spend a day peeling potatoes with Jeanne Dielman any day.

Tell us what you think: