Friday, December 23, 2022

Jeanne Dielman as Number One at the Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll 2022

The cover of Sight & Sound – Volume 33, Issue 1, Winter 2022/2023. Photo from: Chantal Akerman: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce – 1080 Bruxelles (BE/FR 1975) starring Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman.

The announcement on 2 December 2022 that Number One in Sight & Sound's prestigious The Greatest Film of All Time poll is now Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce – 1080 Bruxelles has elicited a lot of comment, this week also in major Finnish media. Tero Kartastenpää covers Jeanne Dielman in Helsingin Sanomat, and Tuomas Karemo at Yle the Finnish Broadcasting Company website.

Jeanne Dielman has its official Finnish theatrical premiere today, released by the enterprising ELKE society – coincidentally just now, and independently of the Sight & Sound poll.

The status of Jeanne Dielman has slowly consolidated. It featured prominently in Mark Cousins's epic survey Women Make Film (2019). The film historian Gerald Peary conducted in April 2022 a vast survey on the best films directed by women, and Jeanne Dielman was number one also in it.

Jeanne Dielman is far more radical and experimental than any other Sight & Sound Top Ten film during the last 70 years.

These polls started in the year 1952. Those were the days of classical cinephilia, when there was consensus about classics.

Consensus prevailed until the 1980s when home viewing formats and the explosion of films on television and later in the web made us all more aware about the world wide wonders of the cinema.

Simultaneously, a silent film revival took place. Although most silents are lost, we have now wider access to silent goldies than ever.

This is an age of a thousand flowers. The collective top ten is the most boring part of the top ten exercise. Individual top ten lists are more interesting, such as this one:

Alice Rohrwacher

Strike / Stachka (Sergei Eisenstein, SU 1925)
Miracle in Milan / Miracolo a Milano (Vittorio De Sica, IT 1951)
Nights of Cabiria / Le notti di Cabiria (Federico Fellini, IT/FR 1957)
The Earth Seen from the Moon / La Terra vista dalla Luna (Pier Paolo Pasolini, IT/FR 1967)
Getting to Know the Big, Wide World / Poznavaya belyi svet (Kira Muratova, SU 1978)
Tale of Tales / Skazka skazok (Yuri Norstein, SU 1979)
The Blue Planet / Il pianeta azzurro (Franco Piavoli, IT 1982)
Vagabond / Sans noit ni loi (Agnès Varda, FR 1985)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, FI/FR/DE 2011)
The Colour of Pomegranates / Nran guyne / Sayat Nova (Sergei Parajanov, SU-Armenian 1969)

What do I make of Jeanne Dielman's new standing?

I think it's a great twist to the consensus.

In Helsinki, Jeanne Dielman has belonged to our programming repertory since 1988 when it opened our series "The Challenge of Feminism" curated by Tuike Alitalo. Before that, I had seen the film in West Berlin where it was regularly screened at Arsenal. Freunde der deutschen Kinemathek possessed a 35 mm print of their own.

Tuike Alitalo in our 1988 program note stressed the revolutionary status of Jeanne Dielman as a feminist film. It was not only about tearing away from a traditional way to portray a woman. It was not only telling different stories about women or portraying women differently. It was about questioning the very idea of the cinema. It was about a totally novel relationship between image and story, cinema and storytelling. For Alitalo, Jeanne Dielman reflects on all subsequent feminist cinema.

Since then, I have been getting to know Akerman's versatile oeuvre better. Her presence was felt at Midnight Sun Film Festival in 1991, hosted by Peter von Bagh at the morning discussion. I have learned to appreciate her talent in non-fiction and also in fresh approaches to unfilmable classics such as In Search of Lost Time in La Captive, based on La Prisonnière.

As her penultimate movie Akerman filmed Joseph Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly. It is a veiled confession, a coming to terms with the director's distant father. A deep Conradian bond was based on the theme of exile and a fascination with the Other. Akerman discussed all this in an illuminating interview with Cyril Béghin.

Then came the final movie, a last will and testament: No Home Movie. In Almayer's Folly, Akerman was indirectly discussing her own father. No Home Movie was about her mother, just like Jeanne Dielman.

Both No Home Movie and Jeanne Dielman take place in homes that are spaces of homelessness. No Home Movie could be an alternative title for Jeanne Dielman, and the same could be said about The Captive, as well.

The sense of a philosophy of history is powerful. Akerman's oeuvre can be seen as a coming to terms with the Holocaust, the trauma unhealed, the basic bond of trust in society broken, the faith in humanity unrestored.

Jeanne Dielman is superficially a naturalistic movie, even kitchen sink. But in many ways it is an uncanny film. "No Home Movie" is a possible literal translation of an "unheimlich" movie, "unheimlich" meaning "not homely". But the word has a double sense, since in German the main meaning of "heimlich" is "secret".

Many currents in Jeanne Dielman's world lead to the experience of the uncanny. From the viewpoint of feminist theory, Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection is the most essential. It covers the Jeanne Dielman experience.

Towards the end of Akerman's oeuvre many of those currents connected, made sense and illuminated also retroactively the towering achievement of Jeanne Dielman, which Akerman created with a great sense of purpose at the age of 25 – the same age in which Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane.

To evoke yet another top ten film, Akerman's work, although set at home, also grows into a space odyssey – an interior space odyssey, un Voyage autour de ma chambre. Or Tao Te Ching, as channeled by George Harrison in "The Inner Light":

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on Earth

Without looking out of my window
I could know the ways of Heaven

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