After an austere credit sequence — white text on a black background, silence — Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie starts with one of the most violent opening shots of any film in recent memory. For four minutes, Akerman holds on an image of a segment of a tree in the desert, the topmost branches being whipped about helplessly while gale-force winds tear through it. The camera, placed on a tripod, is almost totally static, shifting just slightly after the shock of the initial set up to reframe the tree against the landscape behind it. Direct sound accompanies the images of agitated branches flailing against the still background. Each wild gust of wind pushes the limits of the exposed microphone’s recording abilities, the audio signal clipping during moments of particular intensity. It looks – and above all, sounds – like abandoned holiday footage, drawn out well beyond the length of something you’d usually bring home to show your friends. It is probably not what D. W. Griffith was referring to when, towards the end of his life, he called for the modern movie to bring back “the beauty of moving wind in the trees.”1
It is an auspicious opening to a film that is so decidedly quiet in its focus on the rhythms, sights and sounds of domestic life, confining itself for the most part to the interior of an apartment (though not without a few important excursions back out into the outside world). For much of No Home Movie, Akerman films her mother, Natalia, at home in the last months of her life, as she gets progressively more and more ill. Natalia, a Holocaust survivor who was sent to Auschwitz, has been something of a recurring presence in Akerman’s films, though often in a fairly covert fashion. Fictional films such as The Meetings of Anna and Jeanne Dielman played with semi-autobiographical details in dealing with Akerman’s relationship with her mother and this generation of women more broadly, while in the documentary News from Home, Akerman used letters sent between her and her mother for the film’s voice-over narration.
In No Home Movie, off-screen presences and veiled references are replaced with an open and direct encounter between the two women. Akerman flits between observation of the apartment and her mother’s daily goings about in it to actively engaging her in conversation, holding lengthy discussions that range from the everyday (how they prepared the meal they are eating) to their memories of the past. Through all this, snippets of family history emerge: the flight from Poland for Belgium in 1938, Chantal’s brush with and rejection of Orthodox Judaism, the fate of various family members during and after the war. At one point, Akerman asks Natalia about her memories of her own mother, repeating a question that Akerman posed to her mother 35 years prior in her little-seen short work for television, Tell Me.2 Whereas Natalia’s reflections are only heard offscreen in Tell Me, in No Home Movie Akerman films her mother’s response in a tight, full-frontal shot while the women are seated at a small dining table in the kitchen. The shift here speaks volumes of the naked, unadorned simplicity with which Akerman employs her camera throughout much of No Home Movie, whose prosaic digital images seem almost utilitarian at times, preserving precious moments with a pragmatic straightforwardness. One gets the impression that at least part of what drives the film is this elemental impulse to preserve that has been pervasive throughout Akerman’s career; a will to preserve lived duration and the rituals that create little quotidian parcels of time.
Despite the stripped back immediacy that typifies certain aspects of Akerman’s portrayal of her time with her mother in No Home Movie, particularly their conversations, the film is also marked by an undercurrent of irreconcilable absence that acts as an especially poignant counterpoint. Several times, Akerman intercuts their lengthy conversations with long, static shots from within the apartment, placing open doorways, windows or household objects in the centre of the frame rather than bodies. At these moments, which most strongly recall the director’s framing in her previous films, Akerman’s mother is heard shuffling about in another room or briefly seen walking through the unmoving fixed shot. Elsewhere, Akerman inserts long takes shot from the inside of a moving car of a barren, rocky Israeli desert, which sit uneasily side-by-side with scenes from the inside of the Brussels apartment. Indeed, these heavily stylised sequences that break up the visions of home are striking precisely because of their abruptness, creating a kind rupture within the film’s images of intimacy. Throughout No Home Movie, Akerman deals in these discordant pairings: portrait/landscape, family/solitude, here/elsewhere, home/no home.
In one of the most affecting sequences in the film, when Akerman films the two women having a Skype conversation while she is in New York, the director condenses in a matter of minutes the bitter mix of closeness and distance that is typifies her relationship to her mother in the film. After the call connects and she notices that Chantal is holding a camera, Akerman’s mother asks her daughter why she’s being filmed, to which Akerman replies: “I want to show how there is no more distance in the world.” Soon after, Akerman zooms in on the pixelated image of her mother on the laptop screen as the women speak, blowing out the image of her mother until it is a blurred mess of digital colour patches. Akerman’s extreme zoom, an impulse to bring the image of her mother closer, only accentuates their separation.
In light of the events following the film’s release and its intensely personal subject matter, it has been difficult to do a critic’s job and to really think and write critically about No Home Movie. Now that some time has passed, and we have the benefit of a little distance, we ought to consider Akerman’s final film for what it is: one of the director’s highest achievements, and an incredibly moving portrait forged out of the painful vestiges of passing time.
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