I always play catch up so years ago when I walked into my first look at the 1975 drama Jeanne Dielman, Commercial Quay 23, 1080 Brussels, all i knew was that i should probably see this movie i had heard about. What I didn’t know was something else. The plot. Its significance apart from the brilliant Belgian director, Chantal Akerman. The fact that it lasts 201 minutes (yes, that’s almost three and a half hours).
I discovered the run time a few minutes before it started and cringed. But after texting my husband that I would be late for dinner, I sat down. And was immediately mesmerized.
I can’t tell you why. Not because I don’t know, but because experience has taught me that this is a movie best seen knowing as little as possible. I can tell you it’s long, and for much of its runtime, it’s extremely boring. That’s exactly the point – and if you’re willing to be patient, you’ll be rewarded.
The experience of watching Joan Dielman (the short, typeable name) has never left me, which is why I included it in my ballot for the Sight and Sound “greatest movies of all time” poll. The survey of curators, programmers, archivists and critics (1,639 this year) only takes place once every ten years, and this was the first year I was invited to participate. Many months later, the results have been released and, frankly, they are a little shocking. Joan Dielman strike out Burger Kane (2002 winner), Fear of heights (2012 winner), Tokyo story, In the mood for loveand 2001: A space odysseyplus several thousand other movies.
There are many factors that led to this point. The film is stunning, that’s for sure. Akerman, the director, a pioneer of feminist filmmaking, died in 2015, three years after the last poll. The movie was also restored and re-released in the Criterion Collection in 2017, meaning people like me who hadn’t seen it before (we didn’t all go to film school) got a chance to do so in theaters. And the pool of voters from which the final list was drawn has diversified since 2012, so it’s possible that helped with a film that is undoubtedly a ur text of feminist film.
But I don’t want to deny that Joan Dielman offers something unique: it goes against the grain of the frenetic, effect-rich, plot-driven cinema world we now live in. It treats its audience like adults, people who have developed the ability to pay attention without looking at a second screen every three minutes. It’s repetitive. It feels like watching the time. It doesn’t explain what it’s about because it thinks you’ll watch long enough to learn. There is hardly any dialogue in it. There are no jokes. It has no references to the outside world, no story that can be turned into a franchise. You don’t want to watch a sequel Joan Dielman.
But it’s also the kind of movie that, while you can watch it at home, absolutely begs to be seen in a movie theater alongside a dozen other people. (Hard to imagine any larger audience than that.) Not for big-screen eyepoppers or massive sound effects, but because there are a few moments when you have to look closely to catch and then you gasp.
If I sound like I’m vague, it’s because I am. When you’re ready to watch Joan Dielman, then I want you to go in as pristine as possible. A film like this is a bit like a training ground for experiencing art. It asks you to come in with no expectations, to sit still and get yourself out of the way, fidget and get nervous and stay and see what the movie wants to give you. There are very few films like this left – certainly almost none that are produced in Hollywood.
And if 1,639 people who have been paid very little throughout their lives to preserve, manage and explore cinema say it’s the greatest movie ever made – at least in this poll – isn’t it worth a shot?
Jeanne Dielman, Handelskaai 23, 1080 Brussels is available to rent or buy digitally on platforms such as Amazon, Apple TV+, and Vudu. It is also available for stream on the Criterion Channelalong with many other poll winners, and HBO Max.