An Introduction to Chantal Akerman and “Jeanne Dielman”

Sight and Sound, the British film magazine that has long been the most agreed upon arbiter of the film canon (at least in the English speaking world), has named Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles the greatest film of all time.

Since the BFI-produced mag’s second critics poll in 1962, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane held this title. When it was replaced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 2012, that shift alone was hailed as radical. But film culture has changed the last ten years — or, at least, many of us have been fighting for it to change. And this year, Sight and Sound nearly doubled their pool of critics, curators, programmers, academics, and archivists making room for new voices and new films.

The 2012 list had two films from women directors (Claire Denis’ Beau Travail at 78th and Jeanne Dielman at 35th) and one film from a Black director (Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki at 93rd). The 2022 list has eleven films from women directors and seven films from Black directors. (There are still no films from Latin America.) These numbers are not radical — they are the bare minimum. But they have, of course, caused a backlash. Most specifically, they have caused a backlash about the one aspect of the list that does feel radical: Jeanne Dielman taking the top spot.

Akerman’s film is easy to dismiss, especially for those who haven’t seen it. A 201-minute feminist art film with extended sequences of the titular character peeling potatoes feels ripe for eye rolls. But the work is not an endurance test nor something to simply cross off a list. If approached with the right curiosity, Jeanne Dielman can be one of the most singular, emotional, and fun — yes, fun — cinema experiences of your life. At a time when even the most patient of us can feel tempted to look at our phones while watching movies at home, I can think of nothing better for the art of filmmaking than a re-appreciation of this masterpiece.

If three and a half hours feels overwhelming, may I ask for ten minutes? Ten minutes of your undivided attention. One screen, not many. Ten minutes to watch one of Chantal Akerman’s first films, La Chambre. Just ten minutes

If this was an interactive film class, I’d ask people to raise their hands and describe their experience watching the short. But since this is an article, I will simply describe my first experience with the film when I was a teenager. I’d already seen Jeanne Dielman so I knew patience was required, but at first I still felt bored. The 360 pan is dynamic, but the details of the room it captures felt insignificant. Some fruit on a table, a tea kettle, a blank wall.

But then! A minute and a half in, Akerman is revealed on the bed, staring at the camera. It’s thrilling. Those moments of emptiness, of contemplation, make this simple frame of an individual feel almost overwhelming. Now when the camera continues and she leaves the frame, the room has context. Even the simplest objects let us learn more about this human being we’ve just observed.

The next time we see Akerman, she’s lying down. As I attempted to portray in my essay about her film Je Tu Il Elle, Akerman is often discussed in the context of feminism, mental illness, and formalism, but not nearly enough credit is given to her work’s sexiness. Even in this simple short, there’s a reason it was shot in a bedroom.

At about seven minutes in, the steady 360 shot doubles back. Once again, the potentially monotonous pattern gives excitement to a small change. The rest of the film goes back and forth focusing only on the part of the room with the bed. Back and forth, the film withholds and then gives, withholds and then gives.

If you’re not used to watching this kind of film, maybe your experience was not this thrilling. Maybe you were bored the entire time and reading about my experience is baffling. That’s okay! First of all, our attention spans are like a muscle to be trained. Second of all, not all formalist filmmakers will be for you. I love Chantal Akerman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I really struggle with equally acclaimed directors like Béla Tarr and Theo Angelopolous. But there is still value in experiencing their work. And even if you never grow to love films like these, their impact on cinema as a whole is felt. One can draw a direct line from La Chambre to the final shot of this year’s best movie, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun.

Like with La Chambre, much of Akerman’s work plays with creating rhythms she then disrupts. Je Tu Il Elle spends its first half hour in a single room with its protagonist deep in a break up depression. When she — and the film — finally leave, the audience feels her same overstimulation with streets and strangers.

In my personal favorite News from Home (number 52 on the Sight and Sound list!) letters from Akerman’s mom initially feel annoying. But as the sequences between the letters become longer, the film creates a loneliness out of boredom. We start to look forward to the letters that once grated. Even insufficient love starts to feel better than solitude.

These experiences are not possible if the films are not given the entirety of your attention. If you live in a major city, I’d recommend waiting to watch Jeanne Dielman until it plays in a theatre. If, like teenage me, a screening near you feels impossible then take the same approach I did over a decade ago. I pulled a chair a couple feet from my 15-inch TV, turned off all the lights, and created my own theatre experience. (Try being a 16-year-old boy and explaining to your mom that under no circumstances should she come into your room for the next three and a half hours because you’re watching a feminist art film. Porn. She thought I was watching porn.)

Chantal Akerman was a queer woman. She was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. At the age of 65, after a life fighting with depression, she died by suicide. She changed film forever. She is respected and she is revered, and she deserves that.

But as you begin or continue your journey into her work, I must again insist you remember that a lot of it is sexy. I must tell you that one of her masterpieces is a musical called Golden Eighties. I must inform or remind you that she once directed a romcom with a dog on the poster. Her work might be challenging, it might sometimes explore depression, but she was a humanist as much as a formalist, a director of comedy as much as documentary. She was a multi-faceted queer woman who made work that demands — and earns — our attention.

Jeanne Dielman is the new Citizen Kane. What great news for depressed dykes and all our many attributes. Why not celebrate with a Chantal Akerman movie? And, most importantly, why not have fun while doing it?


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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew Burnett has written 331 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Most of her films are quite challenging to sit through. She is a pioneer for sure, but I just can’t get into them. That all changed, however, when I saw “Jeanne Dielman.” It’s absolutely riveting and probably her longest film!

  2. Seconding the excitement for all of us depressed dykes, we are legion and we deserve this win after all we have been through! It’s really exciting to see this absolute gem of a movie being recognized on such a prestigious list. I am slowly working my way through Akerman’s filmography because I want to really savour all of it but I recently treated myself to one I hadn’t seen before, a short called Blow Up My Town, and it blew me away. I am so gay and grateful for Chantal Akerman!!!!

  3. Thank you, Drew, for this piece and the film embedded in it to make it so easy to give this filmmaker a try. I really love your writing, btw, and I’m glad you are writing so many pieces for AS these days.
    I really tried to like this short, and I gave it my full attention. I did appreciate some of the aspects of the choices, like when it changed from 360 to a 180 degree pan. I agree that after a long pan of the setting, seeing the woman on the bed is a Moment. Unfortunately, I read about that moment before I watched the film, so I was waiting impatiently for it. Sad face.
    I really want to watch and like more art films, and I have never seen most of them, and I’m in a routine now with my husband of watching/streaming things with more “filmic pleasure” than what some art films give me. Our sweet spot is really well-made stuff regardless of topic, as well as documentaries about the Holocaust and other serious topics. White Lotus is a good example of our fave type of viewing. Well-written with tons of filmic pleasure.
    I do wish I was in an interactive film class with you! Can you teach one? Pretty please?
    I want to see more fancy films and learn an out then and discuss them! Fun!

  4. Because of this, I went and saw it at a theater in my city with a couple of friends, and I’m so happy I did! Thank you for writing this tribute, I wouldn’t have given this the attention it deserved otherwise. I’m a fast-paced person by nature and usually slow cinema just does not do it for me, but somehow this just mesmerized me. Thank you!

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