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Newsletter 472

Published January 2, 2023
One of the stunning action scenes in 'Jeanne Dielman', the new GOAT

A reader has drawn my attention to Sight and Sound’s latest poll of the 100 greatest movies of all time, and it’s a shocker. The British Film Institute has been putting out this list every ten years since 1952, and it’s been a fairly predictable affair until now, with either Citizen Kane (1941) or Vertigo (1958) emerging as the Number One film of all time, in the opinion of a group of selected film critics.

In 2022 we have a new Number One, which reflects the mindset of our era in a depressing manner. That winner is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by Belgian avant-garde director, Chantal Akerman (1950-2015). I doubt that many readers will have seen this film, which had a strictly limited release. It runs for 201 minutes, with a story that unfolds over three days in the apartment of a Belgian housewife. It depicts a lot of unremarkable household chores, casual sex work and a murder. It’s been many years since I saw Jeanne Dielman, and I’ve never felt the desire to view it again, even though I have it on disc and could do so at any time. It struck me then, and now, as one of those movies that may be appreciated for its intelligence and innovation, but it’s not easy to love.

Although Akerman disavowed explicitly feminist labels, the film has been acclaimed as a feminist classic. The average viewer would most likely find it boring to the point of being unwatchable. As a hardened professional, I’m prepared to suffer a bit, but I can’t see how a movie that is guaranteed to alienate a popular audience could be considered the greatest of all time. Vertigo and Citizen Kane are complex, layered feats of cinematic storytelling, but also great entertainments. Jeanne Dielman is about as much fun as a visit to the dentist.

Although I’m often critical of the kind of empty schlock Hollywood keeps churning out, the great movies are satisfying on every level. Jeanne Dielman may be intellectually stimulating to some, but it’s designed to keep us at an emotional distance. So how did this film rise from No. 36 in the 2012 list to No. 1 in 2022?

It appears to be a result of Sight and Sound increasing the list of critics from 846 to 1,639, and vastly expanding the range of those respondents, adding in bloggers and academics. The result is a choice determined by ideological factors, another dreadful victory for the politically correct crowd who simply had to get a female director to the top of the list. No-one disputes Akerman’s credentials, but was she a better director than Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles? (Or Fellini, or Renoir, or Ozu… etc). It’s foolish to even venture such comparisons and it’s doubtful that she herself would have ever wanted to be in competition with such figures.

The list of fims that have dropped out of the top 100 is even more astonishing, but I’ll let you read about it in Adrian Nguyen’s article in Quilette.

What’s scary about this list is that it is presented as a more democratic, more representative poll than ever before. But how can it be democratic when it hails a liminal arthouse movie as greater than every popular success? More accurately, it’s another case of the moral thought police telling us this is the kind of movie we should like, and would like if only we were more enlightened beings. Movies by dead white males are considered to have had their day, regardless of their quality or popularity. Such views may sound extreme and absurd, but they are jealously, indeed violently, defended.

It’s almost sickening to see Chantal Akerman used as a weapon by those spiteful, woke ‘critics’ who wish to impose their world view on everyone else. It’s just not feasible to blame the Culture Wars on right-wing extremists who want to ban anything they don’t like. The left-wing extremists are no better, and just as authoritarian in their demands. Both groups want to drastically narrow our viewing and reading options. If culture is anything, it’s an invitation to thought and debate, not a battlefield for political bigots and opportunists to shout abuse at each other.

I’m afraid this theme is picked up in this week’s art column, which attempts an overview of the year 2022. Aiming to make it a critical piece, rather than a list, I’ve questioned a lot of the emerging priorities in the art institutions. As usual nowadays, I urge you to wait for the unexpurgated version to appear on my website on Monday, as the published version attached to this newletter has undergone numerous, significant cuts… all a matter of space, of course.

The film column is another double header, looking at Michael McDonagh’s brilliant and disturbing, The Banshees of Insherrin, and the utterly predictable, A Man Called Otto, which is a remake of a Swedish hit movie of 2015. I doubt that either will make it to the next Sight and Sound top 100, as they are both far too easy to watch.