The latest in the ten year cycle of polling critics has produced the most interesting result for decades. The most popular film is Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a Belgium / French production released in 1975, written and directed by Chantal Ackerman. In the last poll in 2012 the same film was rated at number 35.
The expansion of the number of critics participating from a little over 800 to 1600 is probably part of an explanation for this accolade. Then the there is the unwritten convention [not always observed] that films listed in the poll should have been around for at least twenty five years. But it seems likely that the increase attention and study of women in world cinema is a major factor. And there has been a definite celebration of the film and of Chantal Ackerman’s film work. In Britain it has been led by A Nos Amours, with supported screenings, an exhibition and more recently a book published on the film-maker. Other critical voices have celebrated the film. Chantal Ackerman herself will not be able to enjoy this achievement; she died in 2015.
The film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the 2013 Leeds International Film Festival and from a 35mm print, in colour, an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and with English subtitles. Running just on 200 minutes the film is a challenging one. But it continually fascinates and by the climax and conclusion it generates a real power.
The main character, Jeanne, is played by Delphine Seyrig, in what was likely the most demanding role in a fine career. Her son. Sylvain, is played by Jan Decorte.. And there are three male callers and a female neighbour. Intriguingly one of the callers is played by another Belgium film-maker, Henri Storck. I have rarely seen a film that seems to achieve its aim and intent with almost flawless skill. Chantal was supported in part by a female team: Babette Mangolte was cinematography: editing was by Patricia Canino. The soundtrack, as minimal as the visual, includes Bagatelle for Piano by Ludwig van Beethoven.
The poll started in 1952 with the top film Bicycle Thieves / Ladri di biciclette: followed in 1962 by Citizen Kane: and only in 2012 a new first title Vertigo. Jeanne Dielman is clearly more avant-garde than any of these three: and one can argue that it is more obviously a film with a political dimension. It brings the results to two European films and two Hollywood films. But noticeably it is the first of the quartet written and directed by a woman.
The leading choices after Jeanne Dielman look fairly familiar. Most were there or thereabouts in 2012. And whilst there are additions lower down the top hundred is not that surprising. The same can be written of the Director’s Poll where Jeanne Dielman appeared at number 4.
The BFI pages on the poll include a paragraph on titles that have suffered this year:
“Films that have been knocked out of the top 100 include Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou, Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne and La Grande Illusion, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, Robert Altman’s Nashville and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.”
Readers will presumably have their own complaints about changes and losses. My main one is the absence of Luis Buñuel; where is a truly surrealist film in this poll?
What concerns me more are continental absences. Africa has only two entries: Touki Bouki at 65: and Black Girl at 97. North Africa has The Battle of Algiers but, fine as it is, it is not really an indigenous film. India has only one film, by Satyajit Ray. Latin America appears to have sunk between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The poll is predictably like earlier examples; dominated by Europe and North America, especially Hollywood: with some other major territories like Japan and individual film-makers regarded as ‘auteurs’.
I suspect that, as in the past, there are a lot of critics from other continents but most are working in US Universities. They certainly appear to share a limited set of assumptions. The poll actually does not provide any common set of criteria for critics.
The BFI pages offers,
“The voters were asked to interpret ‘Greatest’ as they chose: to reflect the film’s importance in cinematic history, its aesthetic achievement, or perhaps its personal impact in their own life and their view of cinema.”
How could one resolve a final choice between 2001 and Voyage dans la lune? And how valid would choosing the latter be if you have only seen the digitised version?
The title ‘Greatest Film’ should be replaced. ‘Most Influential Film’ would be more accurate. Even if one stacked the viewing careers of all 1600 critics together I doubt that this would include all the contributions to World Cinema. The BFI has not yet released either the voting tallies or the lists of individual participants. In the past even the top film only polled 25% or less. In 2012 Vertigo pulled in 191 votes from 834 participants.
This is not to negate the quality and achievement of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce. I believe it is a real cinematic masterwork. The main virtue of S&S’s poll is that it will encourage people who have never seen the film to view it. In fact, one can stream the title on the BFI player; in other words, in a digital version. The film has serious cinematic qualities so for its full quality it is best to view it in its original format. It seems that the National Film Archive do not have a 35mm print. The screening in Leeds used a good quality print from the Cinémateque Royale de Bruxelles. Perhaps some enterprising exhibitors, with 35mm projectors, could join together to cover the cost and transport. This would truly be an accolade for this ‘greatest’ of films.