Film/Art | We Can’t Go Home Again: Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie
By Andréa Picard
Originally published in Cinema Scope 64 (Fall 2015).
“It is in a house that one is alone. Not outside of it, but inside. In the park there are birds, cats. Maybe even a squirrel, a ferret. We are not alone in a park. But in the house, we are so alone that we are sometimes lost.”—Marguerite Duras, Écrire
Writing about writing also meant writing about solitude for Marguerite Duras. Sequestered in her house in Neauphle-le-Château in north-central France, the French writer-filmmaker wrote many of her many books there while grappling with loneliness to extricate the torrent of emotion and memories she carried within her. Hunger, emotional exhaustion, pain—these emotions were real as the authorial routine (i.e., the structural, pathological discipline) took over so many years of her life. “To write,” she said, “is also not to speak. To keep quiet. To scream without making noise…This self-destruction in the house is not at all voluntary. I did not say, ‘I’m locked up here every day of the year.’” Instead, Duras describes her solitary confinement as a need as basic and vital as writing itself. A condition and a consequence of one another, simply. That house, which was more of an old farmhouse than a tony country home, was occupied by German soldiers during the Second World War. Their garbage was found buried and strewn next to the house—oyster shells and cans of fois gras, jagged splinters of pottery handcrafted by the locals, remnants of a pilfering séjour de luxe from terrorizers in a foreign land. A place thus haunted by memories lived, imagined, and dreaded inevitably added to the solipsistic loop of anxious ideas swirling in her mind and often put down on paper.
Duras’ meditation on and melding of writing and solitude is certainly not original, but the raw intimacy with which she conveys a sort of necessary entrapment alongside a simultaneous inability to participate in so-called normal, daily, social life expulses waves of distress and deep desolation. Ones which find striking resonance with Chantal Akerman’s disarmingly direct words in her confessional, diary-like book Ma mère rit. It was published in 2013 to rave reviews in France (though barely known elsewhere), and Akerman delivered a spellbinding and eccentrically dramatic reading of a segment of the book’s English manuscript at New York’s The Kitchen—a collateral event to her “Maniac Shadows” exhibition in October of that year. Only a portion of the book was read because the audience was fidgety and annoyingly impatient, and Akerman, ever sensitive and attuned to the tone and movement in the room, exasperatingly gave up before the end and tossed the remainder of the pages in the air with a characteristic, melodramatic flair of abandon. Sure, those words were voiced in a thick, smoky French accent (incomprehensible to some?), and there was a fat stack of pages remaining 40 minutes into the reading (daunting to some?), but most significant was the raw, honest, unadorned, and disarmingly frontal nature of those words (too uncomfortable for some?). More private thoughts than confidences or divulgences, Akerman’s personal admissions were self-avowals of weakness, paralysis, regression, childish stubborness, petulance, and unremitting emotional and psychological struggle. In other words, pure pain. A rare intimacy emanated from each sentence, unabashedly honest and equal parts ugly and enthralling. Like truth commingling with fictive flight, rehearsals of life adopted cinematic form in the engaged spectator’s mind, compensating for the lack of visuals accompanying Akerman’s brusque, albeit soothing, voice.
The scene was set for simplicity: a dark stage, a small table with a desk lamp, a barefoot Akerman, casual in jeans, dwarfed by her large printouts. She looked like an overgrown child, echoing the one she was describing in the text, the one constantly seeking solace not so much from the world but from her own neuroses. The publisher calls the book a “hypersensitive self-portrait, marked by a burning, intense and raw daily life.” Hyper. That prefix again. Despite needing a 20-year updating and a bit more risk-taking in its prose to be worthy of its radical subject, Ivone Margulies’ seminal 1993 book on Akerman, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, still stands as the defining scholarly text on Akerman’s filmmography. The adjectives “hypersensitive” and “hyperreal” certainly apply to Akerman’s latest film, No Home Movie, a devastating documentary portrait of the filmmaker’s mother Natalia (Nelly) Akerman in the final months of her life, leading up to her death, when she was mostly confined to her Brussels apartment. Very much a pendant to Ma mère rit, the film introduces the book’s readers to familiar characters like Clara, the Mexican caretaker who lives with Akerman’s mother, and visualizes in the most intimate of terms the deeply complex relationship between mother and daughter, the push and pull between tenderness and frustration, between the will to forget and the desperate desire and need to know—which is ultimately at the core of the book’s polyphonic form.
Inherently cinematic, the book consistently flouts linearity and reads like a Durasian script where “elle/she” is used by Akerman to intermittently shuttle between her mother, her lover(s), and herself. The Je, tu, il, elle demarcations are less cogent than in the film, and disorientation ebbs like manic thoughts made manifest, the ones that prevent Akerman from sleeping soundly at night, if at all, and elicit bouts of depression and general debilitation. No Home Movie adheres more strictly to the mother-daughter dynamic, at times with Chantal living and caring for her mother in the latter’s tidy, bourgeois Belgian apartment, with its cramped, tiled, Jeanne Dielman-esque kitchen as the centre of the “action” (i.e., peeling of potatoes, eating), and at other times Skyping with her from hotel rooms abroad. The film is deceptively radical, on the surface appearing like a first-person diary-doc shot in fairly swimmy, low-grade video recording seemingly benign quotidian exchanges with her mother in declining health, but below simmers a wealth of emotion, which is unleashed via violent passages of an undetermined wind-whipped landscape in an arid land, which we suspect to be Israel (shot on a phone mostly from a moving vehicle). The film is full of tenderness (oui, sa mère rit, et beaucoup), but violence and rupture lurk in every scene as Akerman seeks to extract her mother’s harrowing story before that knowledge is forever irretrievable. A Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz and fled to Belgium, Natalia Akerman suffered from chronic anxiety all her life, an affliction that fuelled much of her daughter’s creative output and helped shape Akerman’s thematic preoccupations with gender, sex, cultural identity, existential ennui, solitude, and mania.
In No Home Movie, it is as if Chantal Akerman, perhaps for the first time in her career, has revealed the core of her work and her wounds in the most naked of ways: her frequent focus on confinement, repetition, and confrontation; her longing to be elsewhere; her dizzying instability. And yes, of course, exemplifying the hyperrealism for which she has been associated since Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the film is very much a treatise on space and time, on domestic and physical entrapment and subliminal choreography as Akerman’s mother lives out her final days isolated from the outside world, and perhaps far from a promised land never attained. Constructed of frames-within-frames with doors open and partially ajar, windows real and laptop-bound, with furniture and objects as middle-class indexes, the film proceeds by meticulously mapping space and doing so for extended durations. A sense of acute claustrophobia emerges in the apartment. In the book, Chantal speaks at length about trying to shelter herself from her mother’s illness and her constant yearning for physical affection, finding temporary respite in a messy room to which she retreats to write. This daily act is not simply salvation from the cramped, compartmentalized space and death’s inevitable encroachment, but also from Chantal’s restless (and relentless) mission to hear about her mother’s past, to recuperate memories no matter how traumatic or details seemingly insignificant—to hear her mother speak and tell her story, their story. From the film’s abundance of static shots and its odd transitional zones, but also from its plunge into filial shame, wonderment, and guilt, Ozu naturally comes to mind.
Still, No Home Movie is in dialogue with much of Akerman’s filmography, especially the obsessive everyday routines and structural rigour of her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman; the complex, intimate relationship with her mother which forms the basis of News from Home (1977); and Akerman’s devastating essay on exile, Là-bas (2006), when she herself was confined to a rental apartment in Tel Aviv unable to bridge the threshold to the outside world, overwhelmed by the flooding of traumatic thoughts, fears and vulnerabilities awakened by her family’s history with the death camps. Stylistically, though, the film is very different from the older celluloid work, the closest in look and tone to Là-bas, which was also shot in video and similarly takes the shape of a personal, cloistered chamber piece. And yet a different sort of radical experiment altogether reminiscent of Nicholas Ray’s 1973 film We Can’t Go Home Again—a work that could only have been made differently considering the filmmaker’s monumental oeuvre and time’s merciless passing—No Home Movie punctuates its febrile, intimate, goading images with interpolated desert landscape shots that dramatically sever the film’s rigid time-space continuum, cracking open the surface to expose a different form of experience. Not unlike in Michael Snow’s three-and-a-half-hour opus La région centrale (1971), the rugged terrain elicits a visceral bodily experience, which lends a cosmic dimension to the film. Intermittently ripped from the everyday exchanges between mother and daughter/filmmaker, the viewer is immediately introduced to this anonymous desert landscape shot with a wind-bent foregrounded tree as prelude. While inherently mysterious, much can be deduced from these contrapuntal images, which, not unlike the process of mourning itself, will affect each viewer differently.
In May, Akerman premiered her awesome, nervous-breakdown-inducing installation NOW as part of the curated Arsenale section of the Venice Biennale. Some of those landscape shots appear, alongside other deserts and seascapes on the five hanging plexiglass screens, while black-and-white digital noise is projected onto the floor and a bench meant to overwhelm the viewer at every turn. A major sound component comprising an impressively charged arsenal of speakers, subwoofers, and amplifiers heightens the general state of emergency that is NOW. Supplemented with pebbles and medium-sized rocks and cheap, compact plastic faux aquariums, the installation incorporates elements from Akerman’s previous installations but is by all accounts her most ambitious, impressive, and fully formed gallery work yet. And while much of the imagery remains indistinct, the landscapes look to be from Israel or the Middle East, the sounds are a cacophony of traffic, sirens, music, song, wind (that ubiquitous crackly, jarring wind in the footage from No Home Movie), and the overall effect is one of total emotional collapse. Four screens hang in two rows, which encourage viewers to walk through a middle, parting toward the fifth screen as a bench on the left cheekily offers impossible repose, wedged as it is between two screens of rapidly moving images; sitting there puts viewers in the line of fire, as an overhead projector beams digital static downwards. The installation offers no respite, and while it is loud and consists of a barrage of moving imagery, it does not bombard to the point of effacement; instead, the somewhat ordered multi-sensory chaos wholly resonates with the sense of disorder and disarray that reigns in the world today, on large levels and intimate ones.
Together, Ma mère rit, NOW, and No Home Movie form an interconnected body of work from one of today’s most fearless voices. In an age of seductive slickness, of Instagram-curated happiness, Akerman continues to confront what Joan Didion termed “the unspeakable peril of the everyday,” doing so in a disarmingly honest, unembellished way which gives weight and credence to nervous collapses, emotional impairment, and fears about the precariousness of life. Both elliptical and tryingly quotidian, No Home Movie is a shattering contemplation of loss and grief as much as it is a search for identity and calm, for rootedness from a perpetually nomadic, breathless soul. It is not a home movie: it is a movie about having no home.