Chantal Akerman’s ‘No Home Movie’ and Miguel Gomes’ ‘Arabian Nights’ Go Outside the Frame

Chantal Akerman's 'No Home Movie' and Miguel Gomes' 'Arabian Nights' Go Outside the Frame
Chantal Akerman's 'No Home Movie' and Miguel Gomes' 'Arabian Nights' Go Outside the Frame
This article was produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy. Read more on this year’s class here.

During the lengthy first shot of Jean-Luc Godard’s “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her,” “nearly
every rule of narrative filmmaking is done away with. The director himself whispers on the soundtrack, introducing the film’s three main subjects: the actress Marina Vlady, who looks at the lens and follows Godard’s instructions; the character she plays, Juliet Janson, a Parisian housewife and mother of two who makes extra money through prostitution; and the city of Paris itself, an ever-expanding, ever-consuming Capitalist establishment that cares little for its inhabitants. With this film, and many others he made in the 1960s and after, Godard rejects the so-called suspension of disbelief and blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction, portraiture and politics, objectivity and personal diary.

Two films that played at this
year’s New York Film Festival take a cue from Godard and refuse to be
contained within the bounds of any one genre or mode of filmmaking.
Both Miguel Gomes’s “Arabian Nights
and Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie
refer reflexively to their filmmakers’ personalities and creative
processes, and both point beyond their screens to implicate other
films and the world at large.

“Arabian Nights”
is a 6-hour epic with dovetailed ambitions. On one hand, Gomes
(working with help from a team of journalists) sets out to discover
and relay — with extreme detail and realism — the effects of this
decade’s economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures on his
native Portugal. On the other hand, he seeks escape from that reality
through storytelling, fantasy, and metaphor. Early in the film, in a
Brechtian/Godardian stunt, Gomes appears onscreen, exhausted and
dejected: overwhelmed by the futility of his proposed project, he is
unable to lead his crew. Suddenly, in an action sequence of madcap
energy, he runs away. The crew follows in zig-zag pursuit with the
sound mixer shouting to his boom operator: “Wild Sound! Follow that
director!” When Gomes finally gets down to work, his is not content
with just Godard’s “2 or 3” insights,
but tries for hundreds. He mixes a variety of styles from the spartan
verité to the opulent period piece. He interviews Portuguese
citizens about their unemployment, their families, their dreams, and
later revisits these people as actors in fictional contexts, amidst
murders, elaborate costumes, and live animals.  Gomes tells us that bankers think
with their libidos, and he insists that money troubles run
communities ragged. He also implies that storytelling is not only a
great source of hope and self-preservation, but also one of
self-delusion and political caprice: a story, no matter how
well-told, is hardly worth the price of admission.

Chantal Akerman famously decided
on filmmaking as her life’s project during a 1965 screening of
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le fou.”
A 15-year-old polymath, Chantal was struck by Godard’s visual
and philosophical invention that mixed the intellectual with the
personal and rarified high art with pop silliness.

Akerman’s “No Home
Movie” chronicles the final year
of her mother Natalia Akerman’s life, but it is no straightforward
personal documentary. Instead, Akerman approaches it as a found footage film,
assembled from existing personal materials and spliced
together without any apparent narrative manipulation or emotional cues. She
presents each scene in an almost mathematical fashion, as if to
declaim: “Here is a document; it shows my mother every time
I filmed her in the last year and it shows the time I spent looking
at the landscape while I travelled to and from her home in Brussels.”

“Why are you filming me?” Natalia asks Chantal. “I film everyone,” Akerman replies, “but I love to film you.” The film — or more accurately, the filmed sequences — immediately
implicate the rest of Akerman’s formidable oeuvre: each shot refracts
ideas, themes, and personal relationships we have seen in previous
past work — even specific compositional visual elements return.

Reverberating throughout is
Akerman’s, “Jeanne
Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,”
a singular masterpiece from 1975. Like that film, “No
Home Movie”
invites us to reflect on daily routine, on the inner life of a
housewife, and
on the effects of gender on daily life. In her mother’s apartment,
Chantal’s camera places us inside still lives that evoke the composed
clarity that comes from hours of loneliness and solitude, recalling “Jeanne
formal and spatial rigor, as well as three films from 1972:
Monterey,” a
portrait of an almost empty building in Manhattan,” and the
intensely focused shorts “La
Chambre 1″
and “2,” which
prefigured Akerman’s ground-breaking work in art-gallery projections.

Even more emotionally, “No
Home Movie” resonates with
earlier films that deal explicitly with Chantal and Natalia’s
relationship. Most painful are the recurring challenges Chantal faced
in forging her adult personality while under the influence of their
intense, almost suffocating bond. In 1977’s “News From
Home,” a
narrator reads her mother’s endless stream of messages over images of
Manhattan, where Chantal has moved to embark on her career “I am
sad to hear you won’t come home.… You wrote so much in the first
days and now it’s only one letter a week. I’m counting on your
letters to keep my spirits up.”

The incredible “Les
Rendez-vous d’Anna” from 1978 is
both overwhelmingly beautiful (with compositions and camera moves
that would turn the heads of Kubrick, Jacques Tati, and Wes Anderson
alike) and excruciatingly personal. Anna, a successful art-house
filmmaker, has encounters during her travels — with strangers, old
lovers, and even her mother — that underscore the unsettled anxieties
of her life. In particular, she has rejected a typical middle
class lifestyle (“Don’t you want to be married?”) and is trying
to stay calm through the new thrill of a same-sex attraction. Anna’s
ex-fiancee’s mother scolds her: “After your parents are dead and
you have no children, what’s left?” Seen today, the moment is
devastating and it haunts every scene of Akerman’s subsequent work,
right up to “No Home Movie.”

In the new film, Chantal and her
mother talk about the challenges of their storied relationship, and
we can see that they have found a kind of peace. While chatting over
video, neither wants to hang up: “Okay Maman, I have to go,” but
they linger for over 20 more minutes. “Looking at you smile like
that makes me so happy,” mother tells daughter.” “I know, Maman,” Akerman responds. “I
don’t want to hang up.”

A refrain from Chantal’s childhood
crops up in a song in “Les Rendez-vous d’Anna”
and again in “No Home Movie,” “Do you remember this song, Maman?” “Yes,” her mother replies
smiling: “I wash the dishes, fix coffee with cream/ I’m so busy,
have no time to dream/ I work all day in this cheap little
place / Flowers on the table, curtains of lace.” Akerman
rejected the expected life of domesticity and personal continuity,
and this may have played a part in her persisting emotional
desperation. But it also meant she had time to dream and to make
films, and now we are left with the invaluable aesthetic artifacts
that speak in testament to her vulnerability and beauty: Flowers on
the table, curtains of lace.

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