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Congratulations, Jeanne Dielman (Image shows actress Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman in the film of the same name; additional design by Tina Tiller/The Spinoff)
Congratulations, Jeanne Dielman (Image shows actress Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman in the film of the same name; additional design by Tina Tiller/The Spinoff)

Pop CultureDecember 5, 2022

The new greatest film of all time is an arty Belgian movie about housework

Congratulations, Jeanne Dielman (Image shows actress Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman in the film of the same name; additional design by Tina Tiller/The Spinoff)
Congratulations, Jeanne Dielman (Image shows actress Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman in the film of the same name; additional design by Tina Tiller/The Spinoff)

It’s just been named the best film ever made, but how many people have actually seen Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles? Chris Smol explains what’s going on with the film at the top of the world’s most respected cinema rankings.

Let’s start with some context. When talking about the “best film ever”, film snobs generally agree on two points:

  1. Competitively ranking “greatest films” is a reductive way to engage with art; and
  2. Sight and Sound’s “greatest movies of all time” list is the most world’s most respected cinema poll. In the words of legendary film critic Roger Ebert, it’s “the only one most serious movie people take seriously”.

Right. But what is the Sight and Sound list exactly?

Sight and Sound is a venerable British film magazine, founded in 1932. Every 10 years since 1952 it has published the results of two polls determining “the Greatest Films of All Time”. The first, more influential poll is of critics – now joined by film academics, programmers, curators and archivists. The second is solely of directors. Each participant submits a list of 10 films; the more ballots mentioning a film, the higher its ranking on the ultimate list of 250. Sight and Sound’s top 10 has played a major role in cementing the legacies of motion pictures like Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Bicycle Thieves.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Of course plenty of other film publications do “greatest” lists because, as Spinoff readers know, arbitrary rankings of things are fun to read and argue about. Film lists are also useful for checking off what you’ve seen (or seeing what you should check out). What sets Sight and Sound’s list apart is its reach. The 1952 survey invited 85 critics across Europe and the United States, with 63 participating. This year’s survey reached out to 1,639 film professionals across the planet.

Unlike surveys by the UK’s Empire magazine or the American Film Institute, for example, Sight and Sound’s panel is a meaningfully international body, and unlike the IMDB top 100 ranking it has the gloss of professionally-qualified expertise. The 2022 Sight & Sound top 10 includes films from the US, Belgium, France, Japan, Hong Kong and Russia, and spans almost a century. It’s by no means flawlessly representative of international cinema. Individual ballots haven’t been published yet, but the final list suggests some blind spots – for example, Satyajit Ray is the only Indian filmmaker recognised despite that nation’s long film history, and no films from Central or South America made the cut. Still, virtually all of 2022’s top 100 are self-evidently great works of cinema.

The top 100 can be found here, but here’s the top 10:

10. Singing in the Rain (1951, USA, directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)

9. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR, directed by Dziga Vertov)

8. Mullholland Dr. (2000, USA, directed by David Lynch)

7. Beau Travai (1998, France, directed by Claire Denis)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, USA, directed by Stanley Kubrick)

5. In the Mood for Love (2000, Hong Kong, directed by Wong Kar Wai)

4. Tokyo Story   (1953, Japan, directed by Ozu Yasujirō)

3. Citizen Kane (1941, USA, directed by Orson Welles)

2. Vertigo (1958, USA, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

1. Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, France/Belgium, directed by Chantal Akerman)

What’s the story with that film at number 1?

It’s Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Chantal Akerman’s feminist art film depicting three days in the life of a single mother and solo housewife. Shot with a majority-female crew (in 1975, no less), its content is the everyday matter of Jeanne’s existence: the chores and errands she runs, the way she makes money, her nightly struggles to connect with her peculiar son. Akerman called it “a love film for my mother. It gives recognition to that kind of woman.” It first made the Sight and Sound list in 2012, at #51.

Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, France/Belgium, directed by Chantal Akerman)

Along with its feminist credentials, Jeanne Dielman marks another notable shift in the list: it’s a legitimately challenging “art film” in the top slot. For all their cinematic accomplishments, Citizen Kane (which ranked #1 from 1962 through 2002) and Vertigo (#1 in 2012) are conventional Hollywood studio pictures. Kane is a treasure trove of great character actors and early-VFX trick photography. Vertigo is a brightly-coloured, lust-fuelled mystery. Both have relatively straightforward plots, immediately-vivid characters, and spectacular visuals.

Jeanne Dielman isn’t that. It’s Belgian, three and a half hours long, and hard work. Akerman’s camera mostly stays at eye level, fixed in place as characters wander in and out of scenes which occur in real time, often without dialogue. Nobody ever really explains their actions. The film’s signature set piece is four uninterrupted minutes of its protagonist silently coating veal cutlets in egg, flour and breadcrumbs – plus wiping up afterwards.

Most budding cinephiles encounter Citizen Kane and Vertigo in lists like Sight and Sound’s, then watch them on DVD or streaming at home. They play great in that context.  They’re deep and rich, but also reliable entertainment.

Citizen Kane (1941, directed by Orson Welles)

Jeanne Dielman is difficult – moreso than any other picture in the top 10. It traffics in deliberate monotony while demanding your full attention. Underneath Jeanne’s daily tasks, the film’s subject is her routine’s impact on her precarious mental state. The film’s rhythms can be both stirring and soothing, but it takes time to acclimatise to them. Akerman shows you the veal being prepared to honour the work itself, but also so you can compare morning Jeanne’s prim efficiency with the Jeanne staring into space over the potatoes that afternoon. The granular focus the film requires from the viewer simply cannot survive with a cell phone within reach. But in its proper context – a cinema screening, or a weekend morning while the house is still asleep – its stately images and frayed edges reward your consideration.

What does the 2022 Sight and Sound list mean for movies more generally?

The 2022 ranking represents a massive gain for female directors. Ten years ago, when the list was last published, the top 100 featured two films directed by women: Jeanne Dielman at #51 and Beau Travail at #78. They’re now in the top 10, with nine others falling in behind (including Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire at #30, the highest-placing post-2001 release).

Other than overdue breakthroughs by women filmmakers, it’s difficult to pick out clear trends. A lot of individual shifts seem likely to reflect the increasing accessibility of older films online,* as well as particular films benefitting from high-quality restorations in the last two decades. Some directors may have missed out due to lacking a single consensus candidate for voters to rally around. Even the top placers can’t claim particularly solid footing. On 2012’s list Vertigo was able to unseat Citizen Kane from its 50-year reign despite appearing on fewer than 25% of submitted ballots.

(* Not a shift New Zealanders always benefit from: Jeanne Dielman doesn’t appear to be available legally to stream anywhere in this country. Aro Video has a copy of the Criterion DVD on its website; Auckland and Wellington libraries do not.)

What has clearly changed is the world around Sight and Sound. Cinema was the defining art form of the 20th century, but its chances of ruling the 21st are diminishing rapidly. Viewers are more likely to stream a film at home than go to the cinema (and even more likely to watch TV or YouTube, or scroll Instagram).

Cinemas only offer two irreplaceable edges over a high-end home setup. The first is the feel of a crowd – spontaneous cheers at Captain America catching Thor’s hammer, full-throated laughter at jokes you would barely snicker at alone. The second is absolute focus. It’s a big dark room with a code of silent decorum, whose only light source is the thing you’re all there to focus on.

Jeanne Dielman is the latter kind of flick. And for the duration of its tenure atop the Sight and Sound list it speaks for the snobs. Serious film culture is increasingly rarefied, dwindlingly relevant, but still a world worth exploring. Jeanne Dielman is not just a movie anymore, but a provocation: a piece of art that’s unapologetically difficult, and a rewarding challenge for a new generation of cinephiles to rise to.

Keep going!