She’s Not There
By Michael Koresky
No Home Movie
Dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium, Icarus Films
It’s no portrait either. Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, in broad description, might sound like a sentimental project for the singular Belgian experimental filmmaker: a series of intimate visits with her mother during the final years of the older woman’s life. We are made privy to personal conversations about the past between parent and child; we watch as the mother’s gait changes and pace slows; and we listen as her coughing becomes more pronounced. But if there’s anything that Akerman has learned—and taught us—in her forty-seven years making films of durational beauty and exquisitely unspoken things, it’s that cinema cannot possibly represent or contain a life. Akerman’s mother is at the center of No Home Movie, but our experience of her is necessarily abstracted. This is a film—a highly constructed one—of unspeakable emotions, not platitudes; of how life and death can instill a room with meaning, not the lessons we learn from pain and loss. It would make for a fascinating pairing with Laurie Anderson’s new film Heart of a Dog, showing how different artists absorb the pain from the death of a loved one and then try to express it through cinema. For Anderson, death unleashes a lyrical, highly verbal consideration of all things shining; for Akerman, it leaves a blank, quiet space. The title has a double meaning, for this is also a movie about how this loss has left her with “no home.”
Akerman’s mother, Natalia, or Nelly, has been an absent presence in her cinema at least since 1976’s News from Home, a spellbinding feature-length film in which around fifty shots of New York City are overlaid with voiceover by Akerman reading letters to and from her mother back in Brussels. Between 1971 and 1972, Akerman had, much to her mother’s chagrin, lived in Manhattan, and had found her distinctive cinematic voice there after being inspired by structural films by such experimental artists as Yvonne Rainer, Michael Snow, and Jonas Mekas. Made during a later stay in New York, after making her most accomplished features back in Belgium (Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles), News from Home was an expression of the dislocation Akerman had experienced while living in the city, and more specifically the physical and emotional distance from her parents she felt, exacerbated by the increasingly passive-aggressive and frustrated tone of her mother’s letters. Ultimately News from Home was a film about alienation; looking at a rundown New York City diner or a grubby subway while hearing about far-off family birthdays and sicknesses creates a powerful and uneasy and wholly relatable sense of disconnect in the viewer. Furthermore, the facts of Akerman’s Jewishness and of her parents being Holocaust survivors makes their separation even more dramatic and her film more than an expression of familial disruption but also of cultural diaspora. No Home Movie, although it is in some ways the thematic and visual opposite of that earlier film, showing Akerman trying to erase the distance between her and her mother, burrowing in close with her in her Brussels apartment, furthers many of News from Home’s concerns about unbridgeable divides.
Like so many of her films, No Home Movie is also about the passage of time, and our experience of that passage, and therefore is constructed from a series of long takes, some of them exhaustingly extended. Most of these contain Akerman’s mother as their subject, puttering around the apartment or eating or even at times sleeping. The unpolished quality of the low-grade video images at times give the film the sense of being a work of surveillance, especially when the fixed camera patiently watches her slowly eating breakfast with some apparent difficulty, or when we see her having a meal at the kitchen table with Chantal, her back facing the camera, blocking the director’s face from our view. And one wonders at times whether the woman is aware the camera is on and recording her at all, such as when she shuffles in and out of the frame, her sweatered torso the only part of her we see on screen. In such moments we grasp her as a presence, as a physical being who now inhabits—and simultaneously once inhabited—these spaces. Because of this patient approach, which makes every moment hum with meaning, shots of chairs and plants and tables take on nearly as much significance. Of course the film’s final image is of an empty room.
Space is abstracted by the specter of death in No Home Movie, though there’s much more here, an undeniable vitality. The filmmaker’s mother is allowed to have her say, most extendedly in a kitchen chat that takes on the feeling of an interview between mother and daughter and which functions as a video testimonial. Here, she talks about the family’s World War II–era history, she and her husband fleeing from Poland to Belgium in 1938 because of the pogroms; memory is hazy (was her father a communist?), the loss of tradition is touched upon (she stopped observing Shabbat after her husband died). Other filmmakers might have put this conversation earlier in the film, to ease viewers into a more contextualized world; instead Akerman chooses not to prioritize history or personal narratives, allowing them to become part of an overall idea of how to represent a life. Akerman’s Jewishness has always been central to her art, and has said that her religious upbringing is part of the reason she is drawn to a finely ritualized form of cinema. Yet it’s also just one layer, and, as represented onscreen, it has always been as much a source of alienation as identification.
Akerman didn’t set out to make a movie about her mother, thus No Home Movie is not intended as a film strictly about her heritage. It was shot over the course of several years, but only because Akerman was always filming something—both during her occasional visits with her mother and on her travels elsewhere. After deciding to construct a film, she started with twenty hours of footage, not knowing what she was going to make as she whittled it down. As the shape became clear, the film revealed itself to her, and was unsurprisingly focused on her mother, who died in April 2014. Akerman’s mother is on-screen even when she isn’t in this surpassingly peripatetic film: in endless traveling shots of arid Israeli landscapes, in a repeated image of an empty backyard lawn chair, in the rattling opening long take of a tree being violently blown during a windstorm at the left of the frame. She’s not there, but of course she is, because her daughter, aggrieved and searching, envisioned the film we’re watching.
Among the clichés of writing about documentary film is the notion that the person on-screen at any given time needs to be a “great camera subject.” This supposes that some people are more worth looking at than others. Akerman doesn’t try to persuade us that her mother is a particularly attractive or forceful character; her importance is not in question. As proven by the haphazard Skype chats we see between mother and daughter in the film, she doesn’t need to be centered or even visible in the frame to be seen and heard. She’s compelling to us because she’s everywhere, not just in this small Brussels apartment, increasingly shrouded in darkness as her coughing becomes thicker, her breathing more labored. Recurring throughout the film are reflections of Chantal Akerman holding the camera—in windows, computer screens, and in one case, water. Of course, Nelly is in these shots, too.