“No Home Movie”
Mother and Daughter
Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie” places her mother in the center, but the real star is death. We sense it omnisciently throughout the film making itself felt more acutely in the sad light of the filmmaker’s recent presumed suicide just days before she was scheduled to present this film at the New York Film Festival. We are reminded while we are connected by love and memories, death silently waits to swallow us all. Akerman mixed calm, sadness, and onscreen suffering making the response to death almost more than we are able to bear.
Akerman was known for her use of the long shot filmed conversations with her quite elderly mother, Natalia. She filmed her conversations with her elderly mother in her mother’s Brussels apartment. She also recorded their chats over Skype. She said she did so to prove that there is no distance in today’s world. However, there is distance and we see this when Akerman cuts from interiors to a series of exterior shots whose emptiness and desolation contrast with the interiors’ intimacy. The pull between inside and outside is filled with extreme tension.
When the two are together in the apartment, we see a poignant connection and their small talk and deeper reminiscences are absorbing. We see Natalia Akerman as a dignified, kind woman, inclined to give others the benefit of the doubt, affectionate not just with her kin but with the caretakers who attend to her needs, and always respectful of her daughter’s high spirits and intelligence. Madame Akerman has been marked by death; she and her husband survived the Holocaust, but just barely, and that brush with fate seems to have given her a sturdy, philosophical outlook on life.
The camera films Madame Akerman’s home and possessions and this gives us a nonverbal sense of who she as we see her intensely observed personal environment. This seems to have something to say about whether we exist or not. Madame Akerman clings to life, daily taking her all-important walks. When she leaves the apartment, the camera stays focused in the temporarily and we know that it will eventually be empty for good for Natalia. As she fades, we feel broken hearted. At one point, she nods off to sleep in a chair and Akerman and her sister try to keep her awake and engaged with humor and baby talk. She struggles to respond, but we can see she is just not totally. The daughters’ attempts to reach her and even though we know that they mean well, they instead come across as cruel, well-meaning as they are, seem almost cruel. There are some of the cruelties of life in the exterior shots. The camera pans over the gray Israeli desert out of a car window, first steadily and then jerks back and forth, creating a mood of desperate flight.
It is clear why Akerman was such a polarizing artist in her long career. These scenes feel like guilt, or punishment. Near the end of the film, water appears on the screen with Akerman’s silhouette reflected on its surface. The water moves calmly and this is in contrast to Chantal Akerman’s suicide. We hope that she felt some calm and beauty in those few moments.
The film is Akerman’s unsentimental love letter to, her recently deceased mother. The camera is focused on Natalia as she moves around her apartment. Instead of pairing words with images, Akerman often rests her camera in Natalia’s apartment, to record epitomizing moments or even conventionally meaningful revelations. Natalia is simply there and oblivious to being filmed. The film is a chronicle of Natalia’s gradual deterioration and eventual off-screen death.
The film begins in a desert where wind fiercely blows at the one solitary tree there. We see its strength and whatever enters the wind’s path is forced into a vortex from which there is no escape and no exit. The tree is a symbol of Natalia’s life, both in Brussels and in Auschwitz. Like the tree, Natalia bends but she does not break. Akerman’s initial instance of isolation becomes a visual leitmotif and the film shows other examples of iterations of singular personages— a man on a bench or a lawn chair in the backyard and they become functional equivalents for Natalia’s disintegrating self. Akerman presents no definition of her mother nor does she gives us biographical details. This is not an eulogy for Natalia and Akerman dignifies her mother by presenting her as a fresh idea.
When Akerman is at home with her mother, she prompts several discussions, including Natalia’s recollections of her own parents, studying Hebrew prayers, and Akerman’s being pulled out of Hebrew school by her father, who wanted to leave orthodox Judaism. Their talks persistently move toward religion and ideology. At dinner she how her father was “a bit of a socialist,” and debates with her mother the leanings of those in power during World War II, which forced the family’s immigration to Sweden. The camera holds them and we get a sense of being removed from Akerman’s directorial hand, as if these moments simply came into being by accident.
As discussions are about ethnicity and politics, we go back to the opening of the desert. There is a strong sense of desire for movement away from a place but no matter, death is on the horizon. Natalia dies and soon after so does Akerman.
Akerman has had a nomadic career that comprehensively grapples with an existential division between self and place. Her drama centers around a lack of temporal continuity—a consistently faulty and unreliable immediacy. This film is not a time capsule and neither is it an attempt to actually capture anything. For Akerman, there can be no home, there can be no movie, and there certainly cannot be a combination of the two, since it would constitute a flagrant disavowal of the catastrophic realities created by manmade transgression. Natalia who was a witness to the horrors at Auschwitz, silently carries them with her with in every lasting step and breath.
The film feels very much like a montage of home movies randomly coming together but brilliantly so.