Readers are likely to have noted of the welcome surprise when in the Sight & Sound decennial poll for 2022 a little known Belgium film garnered the highest number of votes among contributing critics. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a 1975 feature written and directed by the then young film-maker Chantal Ackerman. It is long, over three hours, has an essentially minimalist style and fits into what is often called counter-cinema. It pipped three previous poll-winners, all closer to the mainstream film and all by directed by men: Ladri di biciclette: Citizen Kane: and Vertigo.
The film follows three days in the life of the titular character. She is a single mother with a teenage son and offers a challenging role for the fine French actress Delphine Seyrig. Apart from the mother and son, the only other characters are a neighbour and three gentlemen callers. It is for most of its running time a low-key drama finally disrupted by a fairly shocking sequence.
Fortunate Friends will have seen the feature during the 2013 Leeds International Film Festival with a good quality 35mm print screening at the Picture House. Given its success in the S&S poll and its important place in European cinema this would be a fine film to screen when the Picture House reopens. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a 35mm print in the country. In 2013 the Festival obtained its print from the Brussels Archive. Perhaps, a number of independent cinemas could band together to obtain a print for British audiences.
Counter-cinema itself lost one of its luminaries in 2022, Jean-Luc Godard. Over the years many of his films have been seen on the Picture House screen: often challenging: frequently with fine visuals and sound: sometimes more insouciance than dramatic: always searching out new ground for cinema. His first film, A Bout de Soufflé (1960) made young audiences in particular sit up and take notice. His most recent, The Image Book (2018), broke new ground with colour and digital formats. To date there does not seem to have been a retrospective of Godard’s work; nothing at the Leeds Film Festival was a missed opportunity. So a series of films when the Picture House reopens would be welcome. The National Film Archive has 21 film prints of Godard’s titles, mainly on 35mm. These are predominantly from his earlier career: A bout de soufflé but only on 16mm: Vivre sa vie (1962): Alphaville (1965): also Weekend and Le Mepris, both 1967. There are some titles on other formats but neither Film Socialisme (2010) or The Image Book. Even so, the prints available would offer a remarkable cinematic programme.
A much more recent movie that would also be a treat is Empire of Light (2022). The title was shot on a digital camera and format but there are several 35mm prints of the movie available; though the nearest screenings to Leeds have been Barnsley and Sheffield. The drama is set in a cinema in Margate in the early 1980s. The cinema has 35mm carbon arc projectors which we briefly see in action; presumably one reason why there are 35mm prints.
The film deals with relationships among the staff working at the cinema and the affect on these of the conflicts of the period. There include sexual activity and violence. The latter arises with sudden and unexpected power.
We see inside the projection box in three brief scenes and only once do we see someone watching a film in the auditorium. These are interesting sequences and also feed in to the themes of the drama. The film was written and directed by Sam Mendes; not every aspect of the script works successfully. The cinematography of the title are one of its virtues and were directed by the very fine cinematographer Roger Deakins. Think Fargo (1996): The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007): Sicario (2015).
In one scene Norman (Toby Jones) the Empire projectionist, tells a colleague that the projectors are K.18s; provided by the Projected Picture Trust. These are Kaylee Projectors, a firm that operated in Leeds from 1942 until 1958, during which time the company was taken over by Gaumont. Some Friends will have seen Kaylee projectors operating in a local cinema; a large number used Kaylee equipment at one time. Some fortunate members will have seen them at an event organised by the Pavilion in 2011. The old Lyric cinema, disused, still had Kaylee projectors in situ. Some skilled projectionists, including Allan at the Picture House, repaired the projectors for a series of screenings of a new 35m print. The Picture House staff organised a special tour of the venue and the event. Friends climbed up the old metal staircase to the projection box to see the projectors close up and have the carbon arc technology demonstrated. And extra treat was that, after the main screening, we watched a 35mm print of a short film, which was one of the early ventures filmed by Roger Deakins.