By David Romano
“Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” made in 1975 and written and directed by Chantel Ackerman (in French, with subtitles) “has become required viewing for informed cineastes, after topping the most recent Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time,” according to Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle’s (Sunday Datebook, Jan. 8, 2023).
LaSalle recommends you go to the theater to see this 201-minute epic because, if you watch it at home, you may be tempted to hit the fast-forward button. There would be little point, however, in fast-forwarding because almost nothing happens in the first 198 minutes. I have actually watched the movie in its entirety, and I must say I don’t think it’s humanly possible to watch this film in one sitting. My advice is, don’t bother to watch it at all.
Not only is Dielman not a great film, but it’s also not even a good film. The consummate acting of Delphine Seyrig is the only thing that makes this film bearable. She makes even the most mundane tasks look interesting, but it’s hard to sustain an interest in mundane tasks even when performed by a stylish and graceful woman. As she starts to crack up under the stress of her double life and the self-imposed narrow confines of that life, the viewer is also feeling the strain of her endlessly repeated motions as she polishes shoes (thoroughly, meticulously and repeatedly) and prepares food. Is this what I go to the movies for? I have enough of it at home, thanks.
Actually, if you watch the film in 20-minute segments, it can be refreshingly meditative. So little happens you can go into a state of relaxation before a state of impatience ensues. Jeanne Deilman is more like some weird documentary chronicling a few days in the intensely constrained and boring life of a single mother who, when she’s not doing housework, just happens to entertain male clients at home to help pay the bills. It is a film with the barest of the essentials we look for in a good movie: storyline, action, character development and interesting roles. And don’t bother to look for sex scenes, there aren’t any.
Despite the movie’s pretension to verisimilitude, the life portrayed is not life at all but the artifice of a self-conscious auteur with little vision and little patience for humanity. The cold stone and pavements, and the almost colorless streetscapes of Brussels, are the only contrast to the tidy, conventional apartment where we watch our heroine turn off the lights every time she leaves a room, which is often. Her son, a well-mannered student in his late teens, is briefly seen at his studies and saying bon nuit to maman but otherwise has no life that we know of although he is, apparently, the raison d’etre for Jeanne. It’s hard to glean much when there’s almost no interaction.
Like many other films (think “Barton Fink” and “American Beauty”), this film is unable to resolve the dramatic tensions it has created, so the director resorts to a senseless murder to end the film. This failure of imagination, and the lack of a fully realized story, leaves the viewer none the wiser when the movie is over. Whatever sympathies and hopes I had for our heroine are dashed when she is revealed to be a psycho. Aside from her, there is really nothing else going on.
In any case, the idea of there being a “greatest movie of all time” is patently absurd, even if a roomful of movie critics proclaim it so. Even a top 100 can’t begin to capture the amazing, astounding wealth of the cinema. To illustrate the futility of such lists, I will refer again to Mick LaSalle who was so bemused by the very idea of ten best movies that he responded to a reader’s question with a list of some of the most arcane and obscure movies you have never heard of. But more on that next time.
David Romano is a graduate of San Francisco State University and has lived in the Outer Richmond since 1992. When he is not watching films, he likes to attend the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Symphony, go for walks around the Richmond and practice Tai Chi in Golden Gate Park.