The Case Against Jeanne Dielman

Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece topping the Sight & Sound poll will only widen the gap between elitists and popular audiences.

The BFI’s Sight & Sound poll of the Greatest Films of All Time might be the only important poll or list in pop culture, if only because it’s conducted just once a decade. Unlike the infinite variations of Rolling Stone or the annual wrap-ups by Pitchfork, Cahiers du Cinéma, and Artforum, the Sight & Sound poll seeps into broad popular culture. It’s the reason people still know about Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, Vertigo, and Alfred Hitchcock today, if only by shorthand. The preeminent film artists of the twentieth century are largely unknown to the masses, and this is the list that keeps their work alive, if only for an image, like James Stewart and Kim Novak under the Golden Gate Bridge, or the word “Rosebud” devoid of any context. Does anyone even remember the sled?

Film fans do, but the cult of Citizen Kane (and Welles) is waning. So is Hitchcock’s, even if he’s still remembered as the greatest director who ever lived, or simply an icon, the person one imagines when they hear the word “director.” Do young people still go through Hitchcock phases? Vertigo topped the Sight & Sound poll for one decade, after Citizen Kane held it for 60 years. Neither should’ve held on to number one. If cinema is going to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century, the canon must be adjusted. Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story was the easy bet for number one this time, and rightfully so: you can make an easy argument for its superiority over Citizen Kane and Vertigo on its own, and it would satisfy all critical political bullshit that goes into these polls. Like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite winning Best Picture at the Oscars in 2020, Tokyo Story topping the Sight & Sound poll could’ve brought a lot of people in.

There isn’t a single film in the 2022 Sight & Sound Top 10 that I love more than Jeanne Dielman, 23 quad du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece about a Belgian housewife moonlighting as a prostitute, made when she was only 24, is the summit of all 1960s and 1970s art cinema. For three hours and twenty one minutes, Delphine Seyrig does her chores over three days, and we see all seven minutes of her preparing the chicken, all seven minutes of her dinner with her son, all seven minutes of her abundant time alone, all seven minutes of her miserable time spent with her “clients.” The film ends in disaster, with Dielman stabbing a John with a pair of scissors, a sudden act of violence out of total dissociation, murder with a domestic tool familiar to women of the world all over. The film’s final seven minutes is Dielman alone at her dinner table, bloodied, scissors in hand, with no idea what to do. There’s no freedom, nor catharsis. In the end, she’s just blank. It’s over.

Jeanne Dielman topping the poll is especially surprising since so much remained the same or came as expected: the rest of the top 10 is, in order, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, In the Mood for Love, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Beau Travail, Mulholland Drive, Man with a Movie Camera, and Singin’ in the Rain. The only two films to feature in the top 10 for the first time are Beau Travail and Mulholland Drive, whose canonization has been easy to follow. So has Jeanne Dielman’s, and Akerman’s work as a whole after her 2015 suicide. Still, at least half of her work remains difficult to find or unavailable entirely on home video, and what is out there translated in English of her 1980s work is trapped on the Criterion Channel, where it forever streams but still hasn’t seen physical release or widespread revival screenings.

Now more people than ever will become aware of her and her work, and they’ll be able to watch Jeanne Dielman, along with News from Home, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Je Tu Il Elle, D’Est, and No Home Movie. And if they’re teenagers, or younger, and they’re just getting into movies, Jeanne Dielman is the worst choice of all ten to put at the top of that list, because it’s the least likely to act as a gateway for the innocent and unspoiled. It should’ve been Tokyo Story, a movie that anyone with a beating heart, eyes, ears, and a brain will respond to. Watching Tokyo Story and having zero emotional activity should be a telltale sign of sociopathy. Besides that, its craft is indisputable, as sophisticated as it is seamlessly integrated into the story. Despite how sad it is, it’s a more welcoming and optimistic introduction to world cinema than Ingmar Bergman, and easier to understand than Fellini or certainly Godard.

Jeanne Dielman is my favorite film of those ten. It’s also the closest to the cinema of Andy Warhol, whose Empire is simply shorthand for an unbearably long film at best, or art as masturbation. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah was shorthand for “too long” in my Manhattan house growing up, and the documentary may be more seen than Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s experiments, it’s still over nine hours long. Jeanne Dielman isn’t quite there, just short enough to fit into the mold of commercial film screenings, shorter than some of the biblical epics of the 1950s that made hundreds of millions of dollars. But its status will freeze it as an exemplar of “true filmmaking” and film as art as opposed to commercial cinema. This could be a disaster for the fight of Marvel versus everyone else, because the opposite of Iron Man is not Jeanne Dielman, it’s Tokyo Story. From this century? In the Mood for Love. I don’t even like that movie, but it’s a better example to hold up and one that will get young people interested in cinema before they get brainwashed by people who think Martin Scorsese is the devil.

Even worse, there are academics and cloistered critics who will celebrate this choice as a victory against the masses, who have never understood film and never will. Let them have their superhero and turbo jet junk—no. This art form must survive, and these people want it to become opera. Jeanne Dielman is going to be more famous than ever, and in the worst and most superficial way possible. The extent of the damage, and how much more divided people will become, is impossible to predict. I hope I’m wrong.

Nicky Otis Smith is a filmmaker and writer. He was born and raised in New York City and has lived in Baltimore since 2003.