A lot of life is boring. Well, maybe not boring, but pedestrian. Rote and pedestrian. We wash ourselves, earn money, run errands, buy stuff, and prepare our sustenance. So-called “slow cinema” can capture this connective tissue of our lives and there is no more relevant example than Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the film that just topped Sight and Sound’s decennial “greatest film” poll.

Up from 36th place in 2012, is Jeanne Dielman really the greatest film of all time? No, of course not. Neither was Vertigo. Citizen Kane had a stronger case, but isn’t the whole notion of a “greatest” film futile? I couldn’t possibly reduce cinema to a single title and I wouldn’t want to. Not even a top 10 would be a worthwhile endeavour.

Anyway, hype aside, what is Jeanne Dielman all about? This question has seen Chantal Akerman’s film leapfrog some 12,000 places on IMDb’s “Most Popular Movies” scale, landing at around 100th place and rising. Whatever you may think of the Sight and Sound poll, it certainly commands attention.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 BruxellesSet across three days in 1975, the film concerns the titular Jeanne Dielman, a widowed mother living in a Brussels apartment with her bookish teenage son. Inscrutable and remote, Jeanne lives a life without entertainment or pleasure. She cooks, she cleans, she lays the table, she washes up, she arranges furniture, she grounds coffee, she polishes shoes, she goes to the post office – and we see it all. The camera is fixed, static. It lingers on each activity to completion. There’s nary a sound apart from footsteps, gas stoves, and the movement of cutlery, crockery and furniture. Dialogue happens, but it’s fleeting.

However, there is one big irregularity to this banal existence. Jeanne’s bedroom is her office, for she is a sex worker with several regular clients. We learn this in the film’s opening moments and it puts a rather kitchen sink spin on Akerman’s gaze. It’s engaging in that typical art house style, impressing an austere energy upon you that boils, or so it seems, toward something unclear and uneasy.

The first 50 minutes of Jeanne Dielman meditates on a life we all know but never see on screen. The chores, the errands, the vacant reveries in silent rooms. It echoes the quote attributed to William Faulkner, “One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work.”

These existential sentiments can only be sustained for so long, though. As Jeanne begins the second of her three days, we realise that Chantal Akerman’s film isn’t so much “slow cinema” but glacial cinema. Frankly, the film has absolutely no business being 202 minutes long. None at all. The point of Jeanne Dielman is heard loud and clear by the hour mark yet it just keeps going and going. Eventually, the film enters anti-art territory as it plods toward the likes of Andy Warhol’s Sleep and Empire.

This is a film that expects you to find pathos in a slightly furrowed brow, an undone coat, and a minor distraction in chores. And it expects you to maintain your investment over 202 minutes. It could have worked within 90 minutes. But over double that? Absolutely not. It’s a ridiculous indulgence.

Perhaps it’s all part of a meaningful crescendo toward something? We find out, eventually, with Ludovico clamps keeping our eyes upon, and it is a decidedly amateurish spectacle. The “shocking” climax is captured with the same inert camera work but the real problem is the choreography, which is inferior to that of most soap operas.

Worse, perhaps, are the numerous technical errors some two hours prior. For example, there is a moment about 50 minutes into the film in which you can see the shadow of a boom mic hanging over Jeanne as she polishes shoes. Then, about 20 minutes later, we see the boom mic itself at the edge of the frame, hanging there for at least 10 seconds. This is the greatest film of all time, remember.

It may be unkind to highlight these errors in a film of such modest production. They hardly even matter, anyway, because the overriding problem is its obnoxious length. There is a decent 90-minute feature here. But at an inexcusable 202 minutes long, Jeanne Dielman loses its commentary and pathos in a soporific montage.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
is available now on the BFI Player