Is this Belgian film about a potato-peeling prostitute really better than Citizen Kane?

Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles - Alamy
Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles - Alamy

No film – with the possible, unique exception of Citizen Kane – is born a classic. Not even Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a slow-burner which took 50 years to dethrone Kane 10 years ago, in Sight and Sound magazine’s decennial poll of the greatest films ever made.

But a much more startling upset has just dislodged these perennial favourites into the #2 and #3 spots, thanks to a doubling of the voting body and a radical shake-up of everyone’s thinking in the 2022 poll. A canon that was, by any standards, ridiculously male is now topped, and toppled, by a woman: this is either Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director of the film in question, or, if you prefer, the female protagonist to whom it’s stamped and addressed.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is Akerman’s extraordinary 1975 magnum opus – “masterpiece”, with its haughty male flavour, feels like entirely the wrong word. This 201-minute character study, in which nothing and everything happens, last placed at =36th on said list, and was one of only two works by women to crack the top 100 in 2012. (The other, Claire Denis’s shimmering 1999 film Beau travail, has made a similarly giant leap from =78th all the way up to 7th, and 11 female-directed films now feature overall.)

Long whispered-about in cinephile circles as a transfixing milestone, though not widely distributed – or even released in the US until 1983 – Jeanne Dielman is easy to mock as the archetypal example of something only a film critic could love. (Point the finger right this way – it’s in my personal top 10.) Set over a typical Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the seemingly humdrum existence of its heroine, it could hardly sound less incident-packed, or more unenticingly lethargic.

For a heavy majority of the running time, we simply observe Jeanne (played by then-43-year-old Delphine Seyrig, the screen goddess famed for Last Year in Marienbad) doing the washing-up, peeling potatoes, and going about her mundane shopping rituals. She cooks an awful lot, and we watch her produce entire meals (Wednesday is wiener schnitzel day, for instance) in real time.

From fleeting conversations with her son (Jan Decorte), a student who sleeps on the pull-out couch, we learn that Jeanne has been a widow for five years, has ignored familial pressure to remarry, and instead services male clients in her apartment, one per weekday afternoon. It’s their secret. She lets them in while potatoes are on the stove, closes her bedroom door on us, and time passes. The potatoes boil; the men leave. These sessions are built into Jeanne’s routine as surely as fastidiously brewing her morning coffee, or folding her messy son’s pyjamas.

How all of this is rendered, not just absorbing, but mysteriously mesmerising must be the supreme testament to Akerman, who was only 25 when she made this, the same age Orson Welles was on Kane. She’d cast herself in her previous feature Je Tu Il Elle (1974), about an aimless young woman mooching around after a lesbian break-up, but with Jeanne Dielman, she decided it was time – the first time – to treat the minutiae of female existence at epic length.

“Epic” was meant to be a man’s domain. Anyone can grab us with a gunfight or a car chase, or spend three hours hefting us into battle. But it takes rather a special talent to make Seyrig’s methodical potato peeling into the equivalent of an action set-piece, which somehow compels us to stare, trying to gain access to her state of mind.

Akerman wanted it to feel radical, stretching these domestic chores over double the length of a typical feature. And it does. But every shot of this film contains clues to her deeper intent, and to her heroine’s existential freefall.

Akerman was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and tended to connect her portrait of Jeanne with the role her own mother, Nelly, had played in her life, as a nurturing inspiration who suffered deeply. While it took years for the film’s critical standing to be cemented – indeed, up to this very day – it formed the cornerstone of her reputation in the film world. She would make around a dozen other features, including Les Rendezvous d’Anna (1978) and La Captive (2000), a loose reworking of Proust. Her last film, No Home Movie (2015), was a documentary consisting of conversations between her and Nelly, before the latter’s death in 2014. A year later, after a period of severe depression, Akerman would take her own life.

Chantal Akerman in 1979 - Getty
Chantal Akerman in 1979 - Getty

Jeanne Dielman remains key to her legacy and vital by any reckoning. There’s meaning, not just a kind of mesmerism, in the formal patterning, exquisite colour balancing, and the clenched, queenly stylings of Seyrig’s performance, which can feel like a silent scream. Camera positions are repeated from day to day, always asking questions of Jeanne as she pivots in and out; each shot can be read like a painting we’re asked to scrutinise and contrast.

Sometimes, this statuesque woman seems confidently in charge of her environment, moving briskly from room to room as she flicks lights on and off, barely wasting a gesture. But the more we get to know the flat’s hallways – which become imprinted on the brain as surely as the corridors of the Overlook Hotel – the more they tend to encase her, subtly closing in. Her hair unravels. Potatoes get binned. The building’s lift becomes a coffin in which she’s travelling up and down. Feelings of curious empathy flood the viewer – is this desperation? Futility? You may not be able to put a finger on it, quite.

There is no question of its influence. Todd Haynes dedicated a screening of Carol (2015) to Akerman after her sudden death that year; his Far From Heaven (2002) and Safe (1995) imprisoned Julianne Moore’s housewives in, if you like, adjacent cells. In literature, Akerman’s film may look back to the bustling housework and feminist anxiety of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but it also looks ahead to the experimental stream-of-consciousness of Lucy Ellmann’s phenomenal Ducks, Newburyport, a 1030-page novel set largely at the kitchen sink, with very few full stops, which cracked the 2019 Booker shortlist and deserved to win. Jeanne fans are obsessed by that, too.

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman - Alamy
Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman - Alamy

Gus Van Sant has also said that Elephant (2003), his Palme d’or-winning treatment of a Columbine-esque high school massacre, owed much to Akerman’s landmark. Only viewers who brave Jeanne Dielman’s whole running time – I salute all those intrigued enough to try, now – will see what possible point of convergence there is between the culinary practices of a bourgeois sex worker and the point when teenage alienation picks up a gun and shoots.

But they do connect, at the very end of this calmly disintegrating experience, when Jeanne reaches for a pair of scissors. Akerman is hardly at pains to plant this climax for drama or use it for “plot” purposes at all – for these reasons, hers is by far the more enigmatic and ambitious work. It retrains your film-watching faculties as it goes along, improving them – not least by teaching them how the very fabric of cinema can be repurposed for feminist ends.

Vogues might shift, of course; this may not stay “the greatest film of all time” past 2032. But who knows? Right now it feels anything but shopworn, and this accolade is a blazing revolution in how we even judge such things.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is available to watch on BFI Player