Brilliant and radical, Chantal Akerman deserves to top Sight and Sound’s greatest films poll

At last: a shake-up, a crack in the wall, a challenge to the canon, a change to the same old list-making business of reshuffling the same old names in a slightly different order at the top.

Sight and Sound magazine has announced the result of its latest decennial Greatest Film of All Time critics’ poll and Chantal Akerman’s radically austere, disturbing and brilliant 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is in with a bullet at No 1. This is the eerily unsettling and mesmeric three-hour-plus account of a single mother’s apparently banal life in real-time long takes, which progressively disclose an awful secret. With a fierce, cold, sustained blaze, the movie speaks to contemporary issues and questions: housework as work, sex work as work, the burden of motherhood and caregiving, the theatre of bourgeois respectability, the terrible loneliness of domestic life and female marginalisation, the unnoticed ubiquity of power and violence.

Jeanne Dielman makes this the first time a female director has been admitted to this exclusive gold medallists’ club. It has hitherto had only three members: Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thieves in 1952), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002) and Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo in 2012). Now Akerman has joined them and, like Hitchcock, did not live to see this triumph, having died in 2015.

A lot has happened in the cultural conversation since the last poll in 2012, when Hitchcock unseated Welles though without exactly changing the critical landscape. Identity and representation are now important and that is a very good thing. A stagnant set of assumptions has been stirred up, and the greatness of a modern master has been acknowledged. But it isn’t just that. Akerman’s genius and uncompromising vision, along with her compassion and human sympathy, have been pressing on the debate for some time now and Jeanne Dielman has progressed from being an unsettling rumour or cult choice, bursting through to fully fledged classic.

It is a film that poses a confrontational question to the audience, as difficult in 2022 as in 1975: what does the viewer expect to see and when? Akerman transcribes the apparently dull life of Dielman, played by Delphine Seyrig, in distinctively long, unbroken takes from fixed camera positions. We watch as Dielman sits down at her kitchen table and peels potatoes or begins to cook a meal. This scene goes on for long enough for us to think: this person is really peeling potatoes; there is effectively no difference in what she is doing here in this fictional mode and how she would do it in real life. This is happening. Without cutting away, we simply look at what is front of us, and begin to notice incidental details that would otherwise be overlooked.

But after a while, having been lulled into this faintly hypnotised state, we notice disturbing things that are slightly off, symptoms of an unacknowledged off-camera reality. It is the very polar opposite of a jump scare. Proportion and perspective are what’s in question. The long, long stretches of uneventfulness that surround the main event are not usually accommodated like this and significant things are not usually left unsignposted, and yet this is arguably a truer representation of our lived, unedited experience.

Jeanne Dielman is also a movie that reaches back to Agnès Varda’s 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7 – which makes the list at No 14 – in its quasi real-time scrutiny of a woman’s private life, as well as Buñuel’s Belle de Jour from 1967, with its sheen of dreamlike strangeness in ostensible normality. It also reaches forward to movies such as Jaime Rosales’s The Hours of the Day from 2003 and Michael Haneke’s Hidden from 2005, in that it is about denial, about the prosperous bourgeois capacity for carrying on and ignoring suffering and violence, whether this violence is being caused by or inflicted upon you. It is a poem of stoicism and fear and pain and a kind of survival.

Elsewhere in the list, it is refreshing to see more recent films (at last) being listed: Wong Kar-Wai’s delectably unhappy love story In the Mood for Love (2000) at No 5, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1998) at No 7 and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (2001) at No 8. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) is in there at No 18 but his mighty The Seventh Seal (1957) – once a shoo-in for lists like this – doesn’t make the cut, and great European heavyweights such as Fellini and Antonioni are absent. A small worry of mine is that, as ever, comedy is pretty much frowned on, although Singin’ in the Rain (1952) gets in at No 10, with its heroic insistence on the importance of making ’em laugh.

But how exhilarating to see Akerman’s magnificent work being recognised like this.