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'Jeanne Dielman' and canons in flux

‘Jeanne Dielman’ tops the ‘Sight & Sound’ Greatest Films of All Time poll, bringing new excitement to the discourse

A still from 'Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles'
A still from 'Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles'

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In 1952, Sight & Sound, a UK-based film magazine, asked 63 critics to name their top 10 films of all time. The 100 Greatest Films of All Time poll was repeated every 10 years, with a growing corpus of voters. Bicycle Thieves topped the first poll, and Citizen Kane the next five. In 2012, it was dethroned by Vertigo. The 2022 poll was announced last week, with over 1,600 critics from across the world voting. Of all the films tipped to be No.1, no one could have predicted Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Also read: Exploding the canon with Mark Cousins

A simple description of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film is that it observes a Belgian housewife, played by Delphine Seyrig, going about her day. It is calm and unhurried, not a lot of camera movement, long takes. We watch Jeanne as she cooks, cleans, eats with her husband, takes care of her son (we also learn she's a sex worker). The running time is over three hours. It takes time and willingness to settle into the rhythms of the film but the payoff can be a kind of revelation.

In the 2012 poll, Jeanne Dielman was at No.36. In the intervening years, you could sense its stock rising. It placed third in a 2019 BBC poll of the greatest films directed by women. Film canons have always been skewed towards male directors from the US and Europe. Akerman’s film was already well-known in art film circles but to jump so many places and become the first film by a female director to top the Sight & Sound poll suggests tectonic changes in cinephilic attitudes and discourse over the last decade.

I use the term “art film” with care. Jeanne Dielman is the first instance of a dyed-in-the-wool critic’s film topping the poll. Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Bicycle Thieves have their mysteries and challenges, but all three are films a lay viewer can appreciate without too much difficulty. Whereas I don’t see how anyone can argue that Akerman’s rewards are more hard-won. This is not a knock against Akerman's film. Jeanne Dielman is an important film and a difficult one: It should be possible to admit the latter while believing the former.

I do feel that the “greatest ever” entry in any field ought to have a quality to it that when someone with a curious mind but uninitiated with the discipline regards it, they can understand what makes it great. Jeanne Dielman, in my eyes, does not have this quality (I am aware that this is an entirely personal yardstick). Still, I would say that the poll has done its job perfectly. Critics are meant to argue for works that the public is unaware of, or is unable to appreciate without context. For 70 years, the top positions were passed around between acknowledged (male) masters: Welles, Hitchcock, De Sica, Ozu, Renoir. Akerman is like a splash of cold water on an exercise that badly needed that sort of shock. Suddenly, there’s an edge, an excitement to the discourse, a sense that a particular kind of cinema has ‘won’.

There’s another wrinkle in this time’s poll. Forty-eight of the titles, including Jeanne Dielman, have been released by the influential US-based distribution company Janus Films, which feeds the Criterion Collection, a leading physical media label. The tastemaking of Janus/Criterion is all over the list. The only non-US, non-European films that aren’t theirs are Tropical Malady and two by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a less US-Euro-centric list than last time, but most ‘discoveries’ seem to be happening through a single channel.

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