HomeEntertainmentThe silences of Jeanne Dielman and the greatest films of all time

The silences of Jeanne Dielman and the greatest films of all time

Something utterly radical has happened to the Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. This year, around 1,600 critics voted, more than ever before, and the winner of the poll was for the first time a film directed by a woman. A feminist art film from 1975 is now the greatest film of all time, according to the only poll that “most serious movie people take seriously” (Roger Ebert). That film is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Only three other films have won before. Bicycle Thieves in 1952, and then for the next five polls, which take place every decade, Citizen Kane held the top spot. In 2012, Hitchcock knocked Welles off his perch with Vertigo.

Vertigo may still be the word. Jeanne Dielman has climbed rapidly up the poll from joint 35th (along with Psycho, Metropolis and Sátántangó) all the way to number one. It’s a serious art film, a feminist statement, made far from Hollywood, by a 24-year-old Belgian woman with a mostly female crew, as “a love film for my mother”. As Laura Mulvey writes in a wonderful essay in the new issue of Sight and Sound, Jeanne Dielman’s success is attributable to Akerman’s “supreme cinematic achievement”, and it is also likely a marker of critics’ increased interest in, respect for and awareness of feminist film and women’s filmmaking. As she also argued, “the critics’ greater willingness to watch difficult films reflects a wider acceptance of ‘slow cinema’”.

The film runs at just over three and a quarter hours and the setting is largely the apartment in which widowed Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) lives with her teenage son. The film follows her, in what feels like real time (no overt Hitchcockian manipulation here) as she completes her routine household tasks: cooking, cleaning, bathing. An ominous blue light flashes in the darkness of the window outside. On the afternoon of each of the three days in the film, she goes to bed with men for money. The film ends with an act of sudden violence, or as Akerman argued, an act of violence followed by “seven strong minutes after that”. Beyond its three-act structure, the film does not abide by the rules of screenwriting as practised by Hollywood or any of the major commercial film industries.

So very strange, and yet Jeanne Dielman is familiar too. It has much in common with silent and early cinema. The fixed camera for one. Extended sequences without dialogue, meaning exposition arrives via fragments of conversation and letters and small, often off-screen clues. Action, whether preparing veal cutlets or reading Baudelaire aloud, or shopping for potatoes, takes as long as it takes. We only skip time with a cut. Akerman’s radical minimalism is about distilling the medium down to its very essence. As Ivone Margulies wrote, the film “constitutes a radical experiment with being undramatic, and paradoxically with the absolute necessity of drama”.

Jeanne Dielman is ,as Mulvey suggests, a difficult film for some to watch, or to consider watching. It requires a little extra effort. People walked out of the film when it debuted at Cannes, but not because it is offensive or grisly. It could be described as boring, though in a very productive way. This minimalist film sustains a profound nervous energy across long sequences with little action or interpersonal interaction. As a Lois Weber film does, this film guides the viewer towards the details: it’s the head-on compositions, but also the long takes, which give our eyes time to wander after we have interpreted the foreground action. You’ll always remember the colour of Jeanne’s marbled bathtub and her square kitchen tiles. That blue light will scratch a little dent in your brain.

City Lights (1931)

And there is very little dialogue to distract from the visual elements of the film. Which is interesting. Time was, silent cinema dominated this poll. Those 1952 ballots may have resulted in a win for a four-year-old film (Bicycle Thieves was released in 1948), but the top five contained two Chaplin films (City Lights and The Gold Rush, as well Battleship Potemkin, and Intolerance. There were two further silents in the top 10: Greed and The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Jeanne Dielman, aged a sprightly 47 years old, is a little newer than Vertigo was in 2012 and if you dive into the detail of the top 100 you’ll find some very new films, from the past 10 or 20 years (including Portrait of a Lady on Fire (30), Moonlight (60) and Parasite (94)), while many silents have slipped in the ranking – a step backwards after 2012’s “silent resurgence”, some might say. This is all very healthy in terms of renewing the poll, and the canon in a wider sense. A triumph for youthful cinema, though it’s sad to see some beloved classics lose their lofty seats

A formidable silent classic, Sunrise has slipped only slightly in the league, from five in 2012 to 11, just outside the top ten, but still in the running. The Passion of Joan of Arc, shockingly to many, has slumped from nine to 21. The General has fallen from 34 to 95, Sherlock, Jr bounced up a little from 59 to 54. Greed, formerly at 84, has slipped out of the top 100, along with Intolerance. Battleship Potemkin fell from 11 to 54. Chaplin has gone up and down. His City Lights (50 in 2012) and Modern Times (63 in 2012), remain in the top 100 but at 36 and 78 respectively – make of that what you will.

Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

The notable falls don’t tell us much. But when we look at the silents that are soaring in 2022, a pattern becomes clearer. There is something complex afoot. The top silent film in the poll is Man With a Movie Camera at number nine: a dazzling experiment with a painful contemporary resonance. The next on the list is Sunrise at 11, and then Maya Deren and Alexander Hackenschmied’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) at number 16, a single-reel experimental film shot, as Deren once said, for what Hollywood spends on lipstick. That’s if you don’t count the spoof silent at the heart of Agnès Varda’s real-time drama Cléo from 5 to 7 at number 14.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

The new list presents a gentle jolt to the canon, but in which direction? It is certainly a boost to the celebration of films directed by women, and to a certain extent people of colour. But looking at the silent story, and savouring as I do the long, mesmerising silences of Jeanne Dielman, I sense another shift. A movement in critical taste to appreciate the spirit, and not just the letter of silent cinema, to find a beauty and strength in the essence of cinematic technique and storytelling, outside the confines of reverence for a few long-canonised classics. An understanding that silent cinema is experimental cinema. And often vice versa.

The directors’ poll, conducted concurrently, put Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the top spot – a film defined by its modernity, which foregrounds the spectacular, but also long, dialogue-free spaces. Perhaps the future is silent. Or perhaps those silences will be drowned out by noisy discourse. As Penelope Houston, erstwhile legendary editor of Sight and Sound once said, the Greatest Films of All Time poll is an “impossible but intriguing game”.

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