Silence and Presence: Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs

By Phoebe Chen

For certain filmmakers—attractive women—there is a popular kind of on-set photo that telegraphs authority: one eye pressed to the viewfinder of some behemoth camera, she is caught in a contra-glamour shot that codes the pragmatic as cool. Naturally, there is one of Chantal Akerman, taken some time in the late ’70s—shaggy-haired and squinting while filming Dis-moi (1980), a project commissioned for French TV—that has since adorned the various retrospectives and publications bearing her name. It offers a quintessence: here is the artist with her tools of choice, fiercely focused and rapt in her practice. True enough, though I prefer to think of this artist with another set of tools: in a Criterion interview on the making of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,Akerman described how she “stitched pieces of time together,” reconstructing fragments to feign the “real time” of a dragged-out present, where a minute onscreen feels like five in the spectating body. “Stitching”: hardier than Tarkovsky’s “sculpting,” and much more pragmatic. Of the editing process for D’Est (1993), undertaken with her longtime collaborator, Claire Atherton, Akerman evoked a similar tactility: “I have to be very relaxed, very close to myself, so that I can really feel each shot…when I felt that the shot has gone for just the right length, so that something came through, but not too much, I’d say, ‘Here!’”

What does the stitcher of time do with her threads when the medium is text? Moments accrue a different tempo in a lexical present. This year, Akerman’s Goncourt-shortlisted memoir, Ma mère rit (2013),has found an afterlife in English as My Mother Laughs, in no less than two translations: by Corina Copp for The Song Cave in the US, and Daniella Shreir for Silver Press in the UK (all quotes below are excerpts from the latter). The memoir’s title flags the familiar territory of maternal exchange that recurs throughout Akerman’s work, from the epistolary distance of News from Home (1977) to the conversational immediacy of her last film, No Home Movie (2015). Motherhood even leaps back a generation in the 2004 installation at Marian Goodman Gallery, where rooms of projected footage centre the diary of Akerman’s maternal grandmother, who perished in Auschwitz. But with an artist so cross-medially dexterous, excursions in form tell more than those in theme, which tend to remain consistent. In the to-ing-and-fro-ing between written and spoken word, moving image in the cinema’s black box and the gallery’s white cube, there is the sense of a maker managing the limits of one form with the consolations of another.

My Mother Laughs is the final installment in two decades of sporadic autobiography, but the first to feel monumentally literary. Its frank prose and brusque clauses were rehearsed in 1998’s slim roman à clef, Une famille à Bruxelles,as was Akerman’s particular way of writing characters, who remain fuzzy around the edges. Any certainty about who is speaking (or being spoken of) is lost to an in-text roaming that settles into pronouns only to switch them at leisure: mid-passage, I becomes she with disorienting ease. (“The child was born old and so the child never became an adult,” Akerman writes, about…herself.) A few events tease a narrative—the routines of caring for her mother and her various ailments; the blooming and dying of a toxic relationship; a niece’s overseas wedding and all its logistics—but are told with nothing so helpful as a chronology, relying instead on strange loops and recursive jaunts. To further muddy time, place, and speaker, punctuation is often elided: without quotation marks, address that seems forthright doubles back on its clarity. “I can remember your smile when I opened the door to you in London, that’s what she said to me one day,” Akerman writes of C., a violent ex-lover; or, “I’ve made a home for you, she said to me one day,” tacked-on deferrals that jar with the fleeting ventriloquy.

Akerman more famously (and literally) voiced the words of another in News from Home, where long takes of New York in its twilit blues are soundtracked to the letters her mother wrote her from Belgium in 1972. Akerman reads aloud only her mother’s side of the correspondence, her voice quiet and shrouded in just enough static that the ocean-crossing missives fade into the urban din. In many of her other documentaries, particularly the landscape trio that began with D’Est,there are long tracts of silence— ambient noise, sure (the rustling of clothes in a bedroom, the faint rolling of a distant vehicle), but no post-hoc music, no centre-stage speech. This conspicuous absence was a motif all through Akerman’s life: she often referenced her mother’s refusal to speak about the Holocaust, leaving her with a childhood “full of gaps.” Elsewhere, silence becomes ominous: “When James Baldwin writes about the silence of the South and how he doesn’t know what’s hidden behind the silence,” she said, in an interview about her film Sud (1999), “that behind the silence can be someone who wants to kill you—well, again, I was thinking of the camps.” These are absences that haunt, refuse to fall by the wayside, and in their persistent return acquire a presence real enough to kill—or else shake the foundations of a life.

There is no pareil for the mute, roving camera in written text. On the page, words have nothing but presence. In My Mother Laughs,silence has to be declared as such: “Words are spoken and exchanged. Silence”; “We drove in silence”; “Instead, a heavy silence”; “We sat in silence for a moment.” Every ten or so pages, silence announces itself, by turns “heavy” or “loud,” “momentary” or “lingering”; sometimes the hallmark of her suffering, sometimes a reprieve. No surprise that a filmmaker who always dealt in so many varieties of silence would know to pick from this litany for her writing, setting its cues where words fail.

For Akerman, a propensity for literature preceded cinema. It was Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) that first affirmed film as an equivalent art form to her 15-year-old self, though her faith in books over images has been reiterated time and again. Her insistence to Godard, in a 1979 interview, that her mistrust of representation is anchored in her religious upbringing and the Jewish injunction against idolatry, became a refrain in countless interviews over the years, winnowed down to pithy quotability in a 2011 conversation with Nicole Brenez (“The image is an idol in an idolatrous world”). Akerman has adapted hefty narratives from canonical literature—Proust’s La prisonnière as the darkly obsessive La captive (2003), Joseph Conrad’s first novel Almayer’s Folly as a troubled 2011 production of the same name—and has resonated with the riveting melancholy of certain poets: Sylvia Plath in an adaptation of Rose Leiman Goldemberg’s play Letters Home (1977); or Anna Akhmatova, who was the motivating force for a 1990 trip to Moscow that culminated in D’Est,a different kind of film entirely. So when she says, in Lettre d’un cinéaste (1984), “If I make cinema, it is because of what I do not dare do in writing,” I want to know what she is afraid of.

Maybe the failure of language, its disappointing limitations. Writing can seem just as suspect as those idolatrous images: My Mother Laughs even opens with the unhappy disavowal, “I wrote it all down and now I don’t like what I’ve written.” Twice, an expression of joy follows some perceived truth-telling: “She’s finally saying something and it’s the truth. I was happy”; then, “My mother was telling the truth. I was terribly happy.” Only once, towards the end, the article signalling an impossible absolute is switched out for something subjective, and its results dismay: “this time she’s speaking the truth, not the truth, but her truth, and it was horrible.” Even in a 1976 interview with B. Ruby Rich, a young Akerman contended with the finicky translation of truth, noting that the actors in her since-disavowed second film wanted to improvise, wanted to be “verist…Like verité.” Its English equivalent is elusive: Rich offers “realistic” as a translation, but Akerman still insists on verist. It’s “naturalistic” that hits the spot: her actors wanted to add things to “make it more natural,” missing the point with crowded affectations.

The loyal pursuit of truth is, in part, the burden of form and history, a genre of self-writing in French literature that dates back to Rousseau’s Confessions and was manipulated to radical effect in the work of Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute. Akerman has no illusions about writing: in a radio interview with Laurent Goumarre, she readily accedes the memoir’s certain fictions, “because as soon as we write we always fall back into fiction.” But knowledge and desire collide, as ever: “through this fiction, what matters to me is to be true,” she adds. A paradox can be reassuring, help temper the dissonance between knowing there isn’t a way to inscribe an absolute truth, but wanting one anyway—and feeling then the abject drag of its impossibility. How many sentences were begun with hopeful conviction, and then re-read with hollowing embarrassment?

Even a single word can unsettle and displace, those “words or things that could just as easily make you think of something else.” Connotations spring unbidden, as with the unlikely evocation of survivorship (her mother’s, her own) when someone mentions that “the air is pure,” or that “something is crawling with lice, or even when someone mentions a crisis-point.” The mind juggles its associations: “the word ‘remember’ too, and the word ‘memory.’ We have so many duties now. Like not smoking anymore, and the word ‘smoke’ also makes me shudder. As well as the word ‘field’ and the word ‘earth.’” Without the totemic referent of images, sentences dip in and out of a lost past: now, her mother “still has a few hairs on her head, she who was once so elegant. She who was once such a beauty.” Her aging face is garish with blush and lipstick, then, pages later, she is suddenly half her age and radiant in a gold- and orange-striped summer dress, asking her kid daughter to help do up the back.

Writing accommodates a different mode of return, beyond the indexed image and its concrete playback. Akerman’s memories of one event are spliced with another, doubling (tripling, quadrupling) back with new elaborations. Just as she relays her own giddy courtship and tumultuous breakup, the details of her niece’s wedding come and go in fragments: Akerman and her mother in the synagogue, surrounded by photographers and videographers as the wedding march sounds, then intervening pages that flit back to New York and Akerman’ time with C. Paragraphs later, an abrupt encore to the wedding, now circling back with details that weren’t there before: it’s ten in the morning and the house is already crowded, hairdressers and make-up artists crammed to bursting; her niece in a wedding dress, veiled and magnificent. Everything is being photographed with forensic attention. It’s tempting to read these constant revisitations as something ritualistic, a means to keep in touch with a hallowed past—but Akerman knows that repetition is both sacred and banal. In a 2009 Criterion interview, she talks about the ease with which she first drafted Jeanne Dielman,so familiar were the domestic rites and movements of this (barely) fictive woman: three aunts on her father’s side and three more on her mother’s had been education enough. Within household walls, “everything had been turned into a ritual,” she says, “in a way to replace Jewish ritual.” The religious turn seems incongruous, but then it’s always limned her sense of the ordinary.

For all her suspicions of idolatry, Akerman seemed more confident with the image—not just because she was first and foremost a filmmaker, but because her foundational mistrust of representation gave her enough distance to ask a little less of it. A bad sentence can be shameful in ways a poor shot can’t. In the memoir’s final pages, her mother accuses her of rarely wanting to talk, but Akerman claims that sometimes she just shuts down, or has nothing to say. Silence is better than words that fall short. “But you don’t have to have something to say in order to speak,” her mother suggests; “You can just say something then something else, that’s how people talk.” She knows she repeats herself, that her daughter might find it annoying, and yet. Something then something else. Words that disenchant the first time round can sound better the next (or worse). That’s how people talk. And how they live, no less. Once, Akerman recalls, in the early flames of a new love, she’d found brief loquacity: “Words, the same words repeated over and over again, I’d even become acquainted with the words of love in a dead language. I spoke so much. I shouldn’t have.” But: “Yes,” she writes, “I was starting to live again.”