1600 film critics were polled for Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade list of the greatest films ever made, and when the votes were counted an experimental Belgian film titled Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles — not Vertigo or Citizen Kane or Casablanca — was the greatest film ever made.
Although long celebrated by critics (obviously) along with scholars and academics as a landmark feminist and avant-garde cinema, it’s easily the most obscure movie to top the Sight & Sound list in 70 years. Odds are, most casual readers who stumble across the Sight & Sound list will have never seen it. Many have likely never even heard of it at all.
Jeanne Dielman was made in 1975 by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. The film unfolds in a series of long takes — very long, the film clocks in at three hours and 20 minutes — and follows the title character (played by Delphine Seyrig) as she goes about her daily routine of cooking and cleaning and, yes, prostitution.
Here is one typical scene, where she prepares a meal step, by step, by step, by step.
Famed film theorist Laura Mulvey had this to say Jeanne Dielman on Sight & Sound’s website to commemorate its ascension to the top of the greatest films ever poll:
Jeanne Dielman is inescapably a woman’s film, consciously feminist in its turn to the avant garde. On the side of content, the film charts the breakdown of a bourgeois Belgian housewife, mother and part-time prostitute over the course of three days; on the side of form, it rigorously records her domestic routine in extended time and from a fixed camera position. In a film that, agonisingly, depicts women’s oppression, Akerman transforms cinema, itself so often an instrument of women’s oppression, into a liberating force.
Akerman, who was just 25 when she made Jeanne Dielman, passed away in 2015. Here she is in an excerpt from a 2009 Criterion Collection interview where she attributes her interest in making such an unorthodox film to her upbringing in a world filled with women and fading Jewish rituals:
If you’re interested in watching Jeanne Dielman, it is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, and is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. It is also available to rent at many digital retailers, including Amazon and Apple.
My Sight & Sound Poll Ballot (If I’d Had One)
Every ten years, Sight & Sound polls film critics and directors around the world to determine the greatest movies in history. Yours truly wasn’t invited (an oversight, I’m sure!) but here’s how I would have voted.