greatness in film

Winter Jeanne Dielman

The 2022 Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time featured a surprising Number One: Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I had never watched it, and it’s on the Criterion Channel, which I subscribe to, so I had to watch, didn’t I? I did, and here are my thoughts: 

It’s a tract. It’s a powerful tract, but it is purely polemical. It has one message and one mood. The one mood is used to drive home the one message with relentless force; there is no possibility of dissent or even ambivalence. It is not a melodrama, but it is like melodrama in the sense that it allows but a single emotional response. I think that the film is a powerful statement, but is not a great work of art; maybe not a work of art at all. 

Now, being a great work of art is not the only thing that a movie, or even a novel or a poem, might aspire to. There are many other worthwhile goals to pursue. But I think that one of the vital contributions that truly major works of art make to our common life is their depiction of situations to which equally intelligent and equally reasonable people might have different responses. In our moment — in which social media have conspired to promote and celebrate the unambiguous taking of sides about everything, this contribution is not recognized as having any value. So of course our critics have chosen as their top film one that disdains such complexity. (Also: Vertigo almost repeating its 2012 top finish? Sigh.) 

Therulesofthegame1939 88741 jpg

When Jean Renoir’s film The Rules of the Game appeared in 1939, the opening audience hated it. Renoir was shocked and troubled by this response, and took the movie back to the editing room, where he cut out 23 minutes. As Christopher Faulkner explains in a short video on the Criterion Channel, one of the chief effects of the cuts was to make the character he himself played, Octave, a much less complex one – far more straightforwardly craven and selfish than he is in the original film. Renoir inexplicably axed a key scene in which Octave’s struggle between self-gratification and generosity is resolved in favor of generosity.  

But when the film was restored to its original length — or possibly something a little longer — in 1959, the complexities of Octave were restored. And that is when The Rules of the Game became a truly great movie. Its greatness lies in the richness of its portrayal of this morally compromised world of the French aristocracy. Morally compromised, yes, but not completely without self-knowledge, not completely without standards. (Most of the “rules of the game” are meant to enable hypocrisy … but not all of them.) When you watch the film in its full version, you have a conflicted response to Octave, in very much the same way that you have conflicted responses to many people you know. For one thing, it is Octave’s generosity that results in the death of his friend — had he given in to his selfish impulses he himself would have died. The ironies are multiple and profound. But in the shorter version, we see merely the corruption of the aristocracy — we receive a single message and a single permissible viewpoint. And that is why the shorter version is a dramatically inferior film to the longer one.

In his book about Shakespearean comedy — still, I think, the best thing yet written about those plays — Northrop Frye talks about Shakespeare’s habit of creating characters who are excluded, or perhaps exclude themselves, from the festive reconciliation which the other characters at the end of the play enjoy.

The sense of festivity, which corresponds to pity in tragedy, is always present at the end of a romantic comedy. This takes the part of a party, usually a wedding, in which we feel, to some degree, participants. We are invited to the festivity and we put the best face we can on whatever feelings we may still have about the recent behavior of some of the characters, often including the bridegroom. In Shakespeare the new society is remarkably catholic in its tolerance; but there is always a part of us that remains a spectator, detached and observant, aware of other nuances and values. This sense of alienation, which in tragedy is terror, is almost bound to be represented by somebody or something in the play, and even if, like Shylock, he disappears in the fourth act, we never quite forget him. We seldom consciously feel identified with him, for he himself wants no such identification: we may even hate or despise him, but he is there, the eternal questioning Satan who is still not quite silenced by the vindication of Job….

Think for instance of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who is exposed as a strutting, delusionally self-satisfied fool … and yet even the characters who so expose him can seem uncomfortable with what they have done; and we the spectators can’t help but be aware, if only subliminally, that some of those included in that festive circle at the end are not necessarily any better than Malvolio the mocked. 

I think this kind of character is absolutely essential to the greatness of Shakespearean comedy, in much the same way that in his best tragedies we see comical characters who are detached from the terrible events that we see unfolding. Think for instance of the gravedigger in Hamlet, who goes about his business regardless of what happens to the prince and the other members of the royal family of Denmark. He is a living embodiment of the point Auden makes in “Musée des Beaux Arts.” 

In my view, this complication of our responses, this questioning of our priorities, this reminder that we could see the world in rather different colors than those perceived by the most important characters in the story, is one of the essential gifts great art offers to us. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for the tract, the polemic — the story that gives us a single unambiguous message. It just means that excellence in polemic is different than greatness in art. 

Whenever anyone says what I’ve just said, what comes back is a mocking Yes, but is it art? — with the assumption that trying to distinguish between what is and what isn’t is a mug’s game. And maybe it is. But it seems to be one that we mugs can’t stop playing: som elf us have a sense that the term art is not a useless one. 

I’m going to pause here, with a note for future reference that the question of what makes a movie great is a more difficult one than I have acknowledged here: see, for instance, this post by Adam Roberts on the unrelenting seriousness of the critics’ choices in the S&S poll. More on all these matters soon. Or eventually.