Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Courtesy Criterion Collection

The stuff of most lives, filmed in real time, wouldn’t make much of a movie. But that’s exactly the point of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, which, over the course of more than three hours, details the routine of a widowed mother (Delphine Seyrig) whose days have a regimented fullness: her mornings are filled with errands, tidying up, preparing meals—she breads a packetful of veal cutlets with an attention to process that’s serene, almost inherently affectionate. In the afternoons, before her son returns from school, she has sex with one client or another in her bedroom (though we don’t see those encounters, only the truncated before and after). This, too, is just another part of her day, though there’s something unraveling in her that we don’t immediately see.

Akerman’s camera doesn’t lead us as we’re accustomed to being led in a film; it doesn’t show us exactly where to look or tell us what to think. Unremarkable events unfold in real time, captured in compositions as serene as austere flower arrangements. Akerman said that the film was intended as a love letter to people like her mother, women who do what’s necessary, every day, with mindful attention to detail. Her film reframes how we think about conventional movie action, so much of which is just men moving around, doing stuff that seems important. Jeanne Dielman shows us another truth, one piece of folded laundry at a time.

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