The hero of “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” spends most of the film’s 3 ½ hours alone in rooms. She cuts potatoes. She cleans her tub. She sets the dinner table. Occasionally she has a guest, including the men who pay her for sex. But talk is brief, if it happens at all, even if it’s her beloved but remote teenage son. Gamely played by Delphine Seyrig, Jeanne has only one real companion: the film’s director, Chantal Akerman. There’s a modest crew, but watching “Jeanne Dielman” patiently unfold, in one unmoving, epic long take after another, you feel it’s just the two of them, working silently together to make one of the great and righteously angriest works of cinema-as-art.
Akerman was only 25 when she made “Dielman,” in 1975. Last October, the Belgian filmmaker took her life, at 65. Her death casts a pall over BAM’s “Chantal Akerman: Images Between the Images,” a month-long series containing a large chunk of her CV. But these films would be bottomlessly sad even were she still with us. Her films often spend huge tracts of time staring dead-eyed at people isolated in frames, usually not speaking, almost never articulating their pain or whatever’s going on in their heads. Hers is a cinema of loneliness, whether they’re abstract narratives like “Dielman” or even docs about immigrants, injustices in America’s south or her own life, which remains private even when that’s all she’s filming.
“Dielman,” still her best-known work, is not included in BAM’s Akerman series, but only because it’s being shown elsewhere at the same time. Akerman’s death was so shocking that it’s mobilized the New York repertory scene to team up, with Film Forum screening “Dielman” for a week’s run and Anthology Film Archives and Museum of the Moving Image offering their own screenings. You can see any number of uncompromising hypnotic works of super-minimalism, like “Je Tu Il Elle,” “News from Home” and “Toute une Nuit” — all melancholic yet playful works where you both forget about time and note every passing moment. Even the long stretches where nothing is happening make the willing viewer pay even more attention. Both times I’ve seen “Dielman,” the audience gasped in unison when our usually unflappable and precise protagonist clumsily dropped a spoon.