Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is the very long title of a very long movie made in 1975 by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. The length is fully earned in both cases; this is one of the truly magnificent films that I have seen.

Like all great films, there are as many ways to understand Jeanne Dielman as there are ways to understand art and life itself; following my custom, I'd first think about it in terms of its structure and form. The film takes place on three successive days in the life of a single woman in Brussels, living with her almost-grown son, although it begins near the end of the first day. Our first encounter with Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) is in her kitchen (we would not otherwise know her last name, but for the title), which will prove over the course of the movie to be the most important place in her universe; she is preparing dinner. Once she has everything going, a gentleman (Henri Storck) comes calling, and Jeanne leaves the food to cook as she has sex with him for a short while, after which he pays her and leaves, and she takes a bath. All of this is shown in seemingly endless takes, except for the sex, which is discarded almost literally in the space of a single cut; otherwise, each action Jeanne performs is shown in exquisite, maddening detail. We watch her kitchen preparations for long enough that anyone who cares to could easily make the exact same meal in their own home; her bath, which starts out in embarrassing intimacy, lasts for so many minutes that by the time she rinses off, we have all but forgotten that we're watching a naked woman onscreen.

Afterwards, her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) comes home, and its only now - I could not begin to guess how far into the film, but it must be over a quarter of an hour - do we hear the first dialogue, as the two Dielmans chat aimlessly over dinner, Jeanne speaking in detached pleasantries apparently because that is what one must do with one's child, Sylvain responding in the fewest possible words, so as to avoid losing his place in the book he's studying. After dinner, mother and son clean up, and ready for bed; Sylvain sleeps in the living room, Jeanne in the only bedroom. We continue to watch as they fall asleep, despite the constant blinking of a blue light from some business or another just outside their apartment.

The next day, Jeanne sends Sylvain off to school, and then heads into the city to do her errands. She gets home, and starts to prepare dinner again. Repeat from the start.

I concede that this sounds like the most intensely boring narrative motion picture ever committed to celluloid. And for plenty of very intelligent viewers, I'm sure that it's exactly the case; Jeanne Dielman is not an easy nor a straightforward movie, and one must meet it at least halfway if not further. But oh! to have met it that far! For my own tastes, I found this to be as thrilling as any film I've ever watched, in its own tremendously small way.

Akerman's exacting focus on the details of Jeanne's life gives the movie a kind of heightened super-realism, documentarylike in its precise recreation of the day-to-to existence of one woman, and yet so stylised that it feels almost as much a work of the avant garde as of representational cinema. The combination is strange and wonderfully effective. It's easy to assume that we've "figured it out" - the film is a Ulysses-esque statement in praise of the details of an everyday life, right? - but there's a great deal of nagging depth in Jeanne Dielman that doesn't fit into any programmatic reading like that. Take, for instance, the way that Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte frame the dinner scenes between Jeanne and Sylvain: the plane of the camera lens is exactly parallel with the edge of the table, raised just enough so that we can see the whole surface of the table; Sylvain is near the left edge, facing camera right, and Jeanne is just about at the 1/3rd line from the right, facing towards us but angled left. Occasionally, this image cuts exactly 90 degrees, to an angle pointing down the table. There's nothing inherently unusual about using two different angles to pep up a two-person conversation - it's called "shot-reverse shot", and it's one of the most common set-ups in classical Hollywood-style filmmaking - but the example from Jeanne Dielman is unsual in its geometrical precision, and in the way that Jeanne and Sylvain's relative positions are exactly swapped in the frame.

The rules of classical filmmaking generally establish a "normal" frame of reference for a scene, usually by means of a master shot, and all deviations from that frame are clearly marked as inserts, close-ups, or the like. Not so in Jeanne Dielman, a film which lacks even a single master shot or anything like it. There is never a moment when all the information about a single location is revealed in one image, and when the film cuts from one shot in a room to another (the example I gave above is repeated frequently in its essentials, particularly in the kitchen), this is not an example of our frame of reference being augmented by a new angle on the action; it is our frame of reference being replaced by a new and equally valid frame of reference. Physical space is cut apart into slices, as a result; not that Jeanne Dielman specifically violates the contiguity of space - it certainly does not - but that it makes no effort to privilege the establishment of contiguous space. Every cut in the film is announced with the visual impact of a cannonball, because unlike traditional narrative films, the editing is not an invisible means of implying reality where none exists.

I don't suppose that I can improve upon the great feminist theorist Claire Johnston, who saw in Jeanne Dielman's formal language a repudiation of masculine filmmaking strictures and the creation of a new, female cinematic vocabulary. Certainly, one would have to be mad or perverse to deny that Jeanne Dielman is a profoundly feminist film, and in far more accessible ways than Johnston's brilliant but jargon-heavy theory. The narrative of the film, after all, is explicitly about a woman with a perfect clockwork life having an experience that causes her to doubt whether her life is meaningful, and therefore to (subconsciously?) take actions to restructure her life. Thus it is that on the third day, Jeanne's precise lifestyle begins to fracture, and the ritualistic actions that have marked the film so far (and at this point, we're well over two hours into a movie that brushes against three-and-a-half) are repeated "incorrectly", as it were. This, of course, is another reason for Akerman to use such a carefully regimented series of shots and repeated actions: once we're accustomed to seeing action performed within a certain limited range of possibilities, even the slightest deviation from that norm is earthshaking.

The time has come for me to take my leave of this extraordinary work of cinema; for I have seen it but the one time, and Jeanne Dielman is the textbook example of a film so dense that it's simply not possible to understand everything it is doing after only a single viewing. I know this much: it is not like any other movie that I have seen. Was it Akerman's intention to create an alternative feminist cinema by obliterating the old rules? I don't know. She didn't succeed, if that were the case, as we can tell by looking around and noticing that there are no other films that look like this one. But whether or not it fails as a piece of revolutionary art, on its own terms this an essential work, and a masterpiece according to any definition of that word that has any meaning.