Hold My Potato: Jeanne Dielman gets the Sight and Sound bump on Letterboxd

Always gotta check behind you: Delphine Seyrig as the eponymous Jeanne Dielman. 
Always gotta check behind you: Delphine Seyrig as the eponymous Jeanne Dielman

The Letterboxd data went haywire when Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles took the top spot on the new Sight and Sound poll last week. Gemma Gracewood looks at some of the many newly logged reviews of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece. 

What a sight, what a sound, what a number one!” —⁠Scott M

Over the past few days my Letterboxd activity feed, like others I’m certain, has seen a steady flow of likes on Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles reviews—specifically in my case for a July 2021 entry. Chantal Akerman’s acclaimed 1975 domestic study, made when the Belgian filmmaker was just 25 years old, was a first-time watch for me for the occasion of filmmaker Isabel Sandoval joining us on The Letterboxd Show (the film is one of her four favorites). 

I was grateful to have a time-sensitive reason to watch a movie that requires 202 minutes of focused attention (something many film lovers comment on as if it is not a mere 21 minutes longer than Avengers: Endgame; or, as Yurio Alvez notes, “Chantal Akerman preconceived what Twitch’s livestream would be”). And I feel even more grateful this week about not having to meet Mme Dielman for the first time in the midst of internet spats over whether she deserves her new spot atop Sight and Sound’s greatest films of all time poll for 2022. The pressure to agree or disagree might feel too intense. 

That hasn’t stopped many thousands of Letterboxd members embracing Jeanne Dielman, happy to be “Sight and Sound sheep”, since the poll dropped on 1 December. That day alone, almost 5,000 people added the film to their watchlists, a whopping 3,400 percent increase on a normal Letterboxd day—and still they come. The same period has seen a 168 percent rise in the number of members logging the film, and it’s mostly good news in those reviews. “I really wish I had watched this before the S&S reveal so I could have had much lower expectations going in and I tried to go in as blind as I could,” writes Matt W. “Fortunately none of it was spoiled for me.”

“I never thought I’d get so emotional over a scene of a woman peeling potatoes.” —Harry
“I never thought I’d get so emotional over a scene of a woman peeling potatoes.” —Harry

The last time the poll was taken, in 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo held the top spot, and Jeanne Dielman sat at number 36. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was number one for half a century before that. This time around, the BFI reports, more than 1,600 programmers, curators, writers, film critics, academics, distributors—almost double the number of voters than last time— took part in the poll, producing the first woman-directed number one, along with seven films by Black directors where only Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki made the last list. 

“I find Jeanne Dielman as fair a pick as any to bear the weighty label of ‘best film of all time’,” says Matt QT. “And for the record, I find the outrage over the changes made in the Sight and Sound poll to be overblown and entirely misogynistic. I guess people just love throwing fits over a list, which is meant to change over time, changing over time and women directors starting to trend toward the direction of receiving fair representation.”

One tweet I saw suggested that the new poll represents “the Letterboxd­ification” of film criticism. I’m choosing to take as a compliment to the Letterboxd community. It’s true that Jeanne Dielman is on the Letterboxd top 250—but, at number 178, it’s a long way from the very top (Elem Klimov’s Come and See has that honor). What’s immediately evident is the effect of the Sight and Sound poll on Letterboxd activity: there has been a 2,800 percent increase in reviews of Jeanne Dielman just in the past few days.

I took a stroll through those recent reviews, curious to see what those first-time watchers are taking from Akerman’s portrait of three days in the life of a lonely, widowed mother whose ritualized domestic chores are key to her state of mind—and what happens when that routine subtly begins to fall apart.

“My word this was just a ticking time bomb ready to explode and it did.” —Harry Kay
“My word this was just a ticking time bomb ready to explode and it did.” —Harry Kay

“It’s been on my watchlist since the beginning of the year,” writes Ghostsarereal, “but the runtime put me off. The poll just made me finally pull the trigger and watch it.” Likewise, Sean (Jess) Hillary admits that though they had been meaning to watch Jeanne Dielman for years, they were put off “mostly cause all anyone said about this is that it’s ‘important but boring’”. Inspired to watch thanks to Sight and Sound, they report: “The compositions here are just extraordinary in the detail [they] convey and the hypnotic power they have that when mundane changes in actions occur it’s breathtaking. Its landmark status is more than warranted.”

“The film rewards the audience for their discipline,” Joeyyy agrees, writing that it sets its own standards for action, “then coaches the viewer into an experience not dissimilar from that of a traditional film. But instead of broad plot developments stimulating excitement, it’s simple, understated changes in character choices provoking the viewer. By the last third of the film, each character choice (no matter how subtle) arouses incredible tension.”

The reviews above reference Jeanne Dielman’s ending in obtuse ways. “It is best to go into this film not knowing anything about it,” writes Heather, one of many Letterboxd members with similar advice, and I agree. It’s an unearned ending if you rush towards it, but several recent reviews mention having watched Jeanne Dielman on faster speed to get to that ending sooner (up to four times as fast, Jagdish you animal!).

Sylvain Dielman (Jan Decorte) tucks into his mother’s spuds. 
Sylvain Dielman (Jan Decorte) tucks into his mother’s spuds. 

If the runtime has you on pause, consider the writing of feminist academic Marilyn Waring on the ways in which women’s work fuels economies worldwide, yet has no apparent value since domestic labour is considered “non-productive”. Hang in there, break it into “three lil sessions across the day” if you need to, it’s worth it. I Am Not a Dog agrees: “You must pay attention to that food on the table, the bed that is made and the dishes that are cleaned. Most often thankless tasks that society has assigned to women. In this movie they are front and center.”

“It was certainly less challenging than a dense, 80-minute movie that for some reason I just don’t click with, which unfortunately describes a lot of movies,” says Dennis B. Hooper. “It really reminded me of the Dardenne Brothers’ Le Fils, inasmuch as it’s a slow, patient movie on the surface, but one with deep, turbulent emotions beneath.”

“This isn’t the most exciting adventure of a man’s life, or the first sparks of a new romance,” Maureen writes. “For male audiences at the time, a lot of them probably never gave two thoughts to what their wives do at home all day. and this forces you to sit with her and wait while the meatloaf cooks. wait for the coffee to brew. wait for her son to get home. all the in between times that most films eliminate completely are entirely what this film is made of. I won’t spoil the end, but it was well deserved.”

A noteworthy statistic from Letterboxd member Matthew Stewart: Jeanne Dielman is one of only five films he has come across to pass the 90 percent mark for a single performance. Seyrig has three hours and eleven minutes (94 percent) of the film’s screentime.

“You all mad that this is number one on the Sight and Sound list, because my girl Jeanne is chemexing better than you ever will.” —Ria 
“You all mad that this is number one on the Sight and Sound list, because my girl Jeanne is chemexing better than you ever will.” —Ria 

Like all art, Jeanne Dielman is not for everybody. “I’ve seen better sights and heard better sounds and it’s somehow embarrassing this ended up being a target of online discourse thanks to some people who are interested in getting eyes on it,” writes SilverJiggy. “This movie makes Tarkovsky look like Michael Bay in comparison. Doing chores in real life isn’t even this boring,” Evan reckons, in one of several “Makes X film look like Y film in comparison” takes.

As most of us appreciate, what gets to be “the greatest” is supremely objective—and extremely systemic. Access (to the tools of the job, to the funding, to audiences, to the polls), availability, education and exposure, one-inch language barriers, regional distribution, in-built assumptions, the patriarchy, capitalism—all of these factors and more play into why certain films rise to the top.  (Yes, I voted; no, not for Jeanne Dielman, but I’m so happy to see Akerman fêted, even if she despised polls herself.)

Who can tell what the 2032 poll might have in store? We’ll know soon enough, because time flies: Since the beginning of this story, another 37 Jeanne Dielman reviews have landedan entire season has passed.

Criterion Channel currently has more than 50 of the Sight and Sound films streaming, including ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’. IFC Center will screen Akerman’s film in NYC from December 9. In the UK, BFI Southbank is showing all 100 films across January, February and March 2023. The BFI player currently has more than 50 available to rent, and will have over 77 available from January. 

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