When Jeanne Dielman makes it to the top of Sight and Sound

VK Cherian

'Vertigo' movie poster

What makes a film a great creative work, an all-time great over the years through decades? It is definitely the portrayal of changing human situations and how they get aesthetically and cinematically detailed, going by the latest result of 2022 all-time great films of the world, conducted by Sight and Sound, the most respected film journal of the British Film Institute since 1952.

When the venerable old magazine, which keeps the bar on film aesthetics for the world, decided to expand its database by 600 from its 1000 critics and films makers, the best remains still the innovative cinematic portrayal of human struggles and the fight of the individuals caught in difficult or tragic situations to overcome it. The only notable change in the 2022 poll was that the decadal selection of the best film is a woman centric film made by a women filmmaker, marking a big gender change in the selection and aesthetic sense of the critics and filmmakers across the world.

'Such a sudden shake-up at the top of Sight and Sound's ten-yearly poll! Chantal Akerman's 'Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles' (1975) heads the 2022 list. No other film made by a woman has ever even reached the top ten.' Sight and Sound announced its decadal poll result in the first week of December 2022. However, the directors poll gave the film a fourth ranking, while they judged the visionary '2001: A Space Odyssey' made in 1968, a year before man landed on the moon for the first time, by Stanley Kubrick, as the decadal best for its vision, which was ahead of science.

Chantal Akerman's 'Jeanne Dielman

The fact that a feminist film has made it to the top in 2022 for the first time, makes one look up what were the decadal bests so far from 1952 when Sight and Sound started this poll. The first poll saw the Italian Classic of Vittorio De Sica, ' Bicycle Thieves' portraying the desperate post second world war situation of Europe and Italy emerge as the best. The film, which is celebrated as the best of neorealist films of the postwar era is also the one which inspired a host of film makers across the globe, including India's own maestro Satyajit Ray.

Vittorio De Sica's Italian Classic ' Bicycle Thieves'

But from 1962 to 2002 the American film ' Citizen Kane' dominated the list without a break. The film made in 1941 by a new comer, Orson Wells, began to be noticed post war and remained the toast of critics and filmmakers for not just its novel way of content, but its non-linear narrative and also new camera and other technical excellence. Today's usual style of flashbacks, deep focus and camera pan to narrate a story differently was first introduced by Orson Wells in the film making it remain at the top of the all-time great list till the video and digital era came in. Just like 'Bicycle Thieves', 'Citizen Kane' was a black and white film exploring the light and shades completely of that era. For the directors Citizen Kane is still the 2nd best in the ranking, for its innovative approach in both content and cinematic techniques. The film is regarded as a major milestone in the evolution of cinema's aesthetic visual language.

The 2012 poll saw the surprise selection of 'Vertigo', a colour film of suspense thriller master Alfred Hitchcock. Like most of his films, 'Vertigo' has a distilled narrative, with stunning visuals of Los Angeles, combined with human complexities in a murder mystery. Vertigo literally means the fear of heights and he used it as an allegory in the story so beautifully and literally that one cannot make out the physical and psychological aspects of this human phenomenon.

Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'

A seemingly ordinary murder mystery has been raised to a probe into human minds and its various manifestations reflected in situations, personalities, beautifully linking it with the past and present incidents. Hitchcock's magical touch comes out full blown in Vertigo. No wonder it remains the second best in critics rating and fourth in directors ranking.

On Chantel Ackerman's elevation to the top of the chart of the critics poll, Sight and Sound Editors appeared to be surprised and shocked. 'In the first instance, this is unsurprising: women film directors have always, obviously, been few and far between; equally obviously, the contributing critics have been predominantly male. It was when Sight and Sound expanded the critics' pool in 2012 that 'Jeanne Dielman' first entered the list, at number 35; its rise to the top now is a triumph for women's cinema.

But perhaps the ultimate surprise goes even further: the film that collected the most votes in 2022 is made with a cinematic style and strategy closer to avantgarde than mainstream traditions and, furthermore, at just under three and a half hours, demands dedicated viewing. Although confrontational, idiosyncratic and extraordinary films have consistently appeared lower in the lists, the experimental tradition, to which Jeanne Dielman belongs,has been - apart perhaps from the recent appearance of Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) - more or less absent. While it has brought this tradition to the top of the list, Jeanne Dielman is inescapably a woman's film, consciously feminist in its turn to the avant garde.' Clearly the world of film aestheticians have become gender sensitive and a film where a woman helplessly protests about her pathetic life situation has caught their imagination, ringing a new genre of greats among the film aestheticians across the world.

Frames from 'Jeanne Dielman', a feminist film of the era

The 1975 film of Chantel Ackerman, who died at the age of 65 in 2015 was inspired by the French new wave, especially of Jean Luc Godard. She made the movie when she was 25, but did not live to see it being honoured the decadal all-time great. Her other films included News from Home (1976), Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (1979), Nuit et jour (1991) and D'est (1993). Her last film ' No Home Movie' premiered in Locarno film festival in 2015.

The film ' Jeanne Dielman' is also the first film of Ackerman just as "Citizen Kane Orson Welles", which remained the all-time great for years. The film is shot in a flat in Brussels, detailing the three day life of a widow, who stays there with her teenage son. She has no work and her earnings are from the afternoon visitors who are there for sex. But she mechanically goes about her boring life, without any complaints, talking about her life to her son who goes out in the morning for school and comes back in the evening. Her only relief from daily chores in radio music and her sister's letter from Canada. We never see her talking to her clients, but talks to a neighbour who leaves their kids for a few minutes with her. In the end of the film, on the third day she is faced with many little imponderables and the last being with a man who is trying for his orgasm forcefully with her despite her meek protest. She reacts by slitting his throat after the sexual act and waits for the inevitable to happen, as the film ends.

The three hour film, depicting the three days of a widow's life at her home and around is indeed full of novelty. From the routine switching on and off lights to kitchen works to shopping Ackerman makes the daily chores look like a daily ritual of a worship. Even her activities with her son with whom she does all the rituals looks like an offering , as she has reconciled her tragic situation of life. She tells her son her life story of growing up as an orphan to getting married and why she does not want to remarry. She cuts short her son's talk of cruelty of sex as a man penetrates a woman , saying that he has no idea what a woman feels and it is time to sleep. But the mundane chores of life becomes a statement about her pathetic static life, caught in the walled rooms and dull alleys around it, taking her nowhere in future. The film beautifully captures the post war uncertainties of the generations of Europe, especially orphaned women, who were out to find their moorings.

Above all these rankings over the years takes us to the question of what is a good film and its ingredients. Going by the contents of the film from 1952 to 2022, the favourite subject of the film-makers is the struggle of the human being against the odds of his/her immediate life. Whether it is the desperate chase of the bicycle thief by the worker in the De Sica film or the realisation of the newspaper tycoon that in the search for glory and wealth, he lost out all that he considered precious in life in 'Citizen Kane' or the intense struggle of the lead character against human deception in Vertigo or the pathetic existence of the widow in the Ackerman film, it is all about humans and their struggles with odd situations. They not only showcase the slice of life in the film, but make a lasting statement about the situations through the eyes of a visionary artist, adding different shades of views to these human predicaments.

Not just the human situations, but the cinematic evolution as seen in these films makes them equally great. 'Bicycle Thieves', heralded the visualisation of dark realities in social and political contexts, while Citizen Kane portrayed the loss of values of individuals while climbing social and economic ladders, with equally innovative narrative style and new visual feast of the times. 'Vertigo' is a colourful masterpiece of cinematic suspense and inquiry into the human mind with all that visual and sound ingredients of film as a medium can offer. 'Jeanne Dielman', captures the dull life of a widow without any dramatic cinema styles and takes the viewers down to a different world through simple movements and play of lights and situations.

'Bicycle Thieves' heralded the visualisation of dark realities in social and political contexts

In short it is the synthesis of human struggles with their situations in life combined with the best of the cinematic languages of the period in narratives and visual techniques which makes a film truly great across the world. No wonder India's own 'Pather Panchali' remains in the list of 100 all-time greats even today for its innovative human document of the times. No other Indian film has ever got into this exclusive, prestigious list so far.

However, a worrying trend is seen in the last list of 2022, in the film 'Get Out', a routine suspense thriller of Hollywood dipped in racial hatred. No idea where that trend will take the otherwise rich list of 'Tokyo Story, Rashomon, Persona, Wild Strawberries, Andre Rublev, La Strada, Battleship Potemkin, The Searchers, Man with a Movie Camera and Passion of Joan of Arc in future.

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