The Greatest Film of All Time?

I am no fan of 10 Best lists. I had to do many of them for Time over the years ­— first when I was TV critic, later as theater critic.  It was always something of a game, putting together a list with the proper balance: highbrow vs. lowbrow, well-known choices vs. a quirky ringer or two. (Gender and racial diversity was not quite a thing back then, but today it obviously figures in the equation too.) 

But the new list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time compiled by Sight and Sound  — the British film magazine that polls critics and academics for their favorites once every 10 years — was a particular doozy. The film that landed in the No. 1 spot (supplanting Citizen Kane, the top film for many decades, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which ousted it 10 years ago) was Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 1975 film from Belgian writer-director Chantal Akerman.

My reaction, and that of a lot of ordinary filmgoers, was … huh? I consider myself pretty well versed in film history (having seen many of the classics in college at Berkeley, catching the rest of them in New York City revival houses over the years), and I had, frankly, never even heard of the film.  Which just shows how out of the loop I am when it comes to current trends in feminist film studies — where Jeanne Dielman, I’ve learned, has been rising steadily in esteem for years. (It tied for 35th place on the Sight and Sound list 10 years ago.) 

The film is currently available on HBO Max, so I decided to sit down one evening and watch it. 

That is no easy chore. Jeanne Dielman is a 3 hr. 21 min. cinema-verite portrait of a widow (Delphine Seyrig) going about her daily routine in the drab Brussels apartment she shares with her son.  As a viewing experience, the film is tedious beyond words — and clearly meant to be. We watch for long minutes as Jeanne washes dishes, or peels potatoes, or shines her son’s shoes — rituals she repeats almost precisely every day. Each evening her son arrives home and they eat dinner together, in near total silence. Each afternoon, she answers the doorbell and lets a man into the apartment; we see them go into a bedroom, emerge from it some time later, and exchange money. She is turning tricks. 

There is almost no dialogue. The camera never moves, simply planting itself in the middle distance and watching, before cutting to the next scene. Occasionally Jeanne leaves the apartment for errands — a trip to the post office or a shoe-repair shop — but nothing of any substance happens, until the very end. And that is left unresolved. Three hours and 21 minutes. 

The film is certainly an achievement of some kind, utterly uncompromising in its rigorous minimalism. Jeanne’s rote, impassive demeanor is a study in alienation. And at a time when movies have burst the bounds of physical reality, narrative coherence, and the laws of gravity (see this year’s Oscar frontrunner, Everything Everywhere All at Once), it is refreshing to see one so relentlessly focused on the most mundane details of everyday life.

But the film’s coronation, it seems to me, crystalizes the gulf these days between what critics applaud and what audiences respond to. To put it bluntly, Jeanne Dielman is a film for the classroom. As perhaps the supreme example of a kind of minimalist, hyper-realistic esthetic, it’s not that surprising that the film would wind up on a lot of critics’ lists. But it’s a film that denies most of the pleasures we get from moviegoing: storytelling, emotion, laughter, suspense, cinematography.

With a greatly expanded roster of 1,600 contributors this year, the Sight and Sound list is more diverse than ever before — more women and Black directors, more international films, a few obscure experimental works. But mainly the critical vogue is for austere modernism.  Thus, Ozu’s stately, formalistic Tokyo Story (a longtime favorite, now at No. 4) over any of the more cinematically exciting works of Kurosawa (Seven Samurai makes it to No. 20); the cryptic, elusive narrative of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (another film new to me, at a surprising No. 5) over the warmth and exuberance of Fellini ( drops from 10th place to 31st). The best Chaplin can do is 36th place, for City Lights (a film certainly high on my own list). The only real crowd-pleaser to sneak into the Top 10 is Singin’ in the Rain, in tenth place.

Jeanne Dielman is a unique and in some ways impressive film. But it’s not one I can imagine anyone in their right mind, and with normal human responses and attention span, being able to sit through with pleasure — or, God forbid, actually wanting to see over again. 

A lot of film critics apparently have?  I rest my case.   

3 thoughts on “The Greatest Film of All Time?

  1. Maybe it can be screened with trigger warnings:
    Many, many scenes contain content that may induce involuntary sleep reflex.
    Consumption of popcorn is not recommended for fear of choking while unconscious.


  2. Wonderful, thanks

    25-year Retrospective: To receive weekly journal, “On Seeing, “ click



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