With ‘No Home Movie,’ Chantal Akerman Chronicles the End of a Life, and a Search for Where She Belongs

With 'No Home Movie,' Chantal Akerman Chronicles the End of a Life, and a Search for Where She Belongs
With 'No Home Movie,' Chantal Akerman Chronicles the End of Life, and Search Where She Belongs

The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.

“Where is Chantal?” The soft words are spoken by Chantal Akerman’s mother and echo through the final act of her newest film, “No Home Movie,” which had its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival. In a weakened state, half in a dream and unable to turn around to see her daughter pacing on the balcony behind her, Chantal’s mother wonders where her daughter is. Akerman, who shot most of the film herself by arranging cameras around her mother’s home, likely did not even hear her mother’s voice while it was recorded. She died in April 2014 at 86 years old.

As a companion to “No Home Movie,” Locarno also screened a documentary about Akerman’s life called “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman,” directed by Marianne Lambert. The films have a naturally symbiotic relationship and build on common themes. Lambert’s film offers an overview of Akerman’s career, while showcasing the behind-the-scenes process of her work on “No Home Movie.” This adds context on how Akerman made the film but also shows her struggle with the loss of her mother. She is at a turning point and she no longer knows where home is. “No Home Movie’s” title can be read two ways: This is no ordinary home movie, and a story about not having a home.

Beginning with her early experimental films, much of the action of Akerman’s body of work has taken place in interiors. These spaces are often restrictive, gilded cages for her disaffected female leads, where they are caught in an endless cycle of routine and loneliness. To call these spaces “homes” seems disingenuous, as they don’t offer the sense of family and comfort we have come to understand from the word — and yet, the idea of home remains fundamental to Akerman’s work.

For Akerman, home seems indistinguishable from her mother. Early films like “Jeanne Dielman” and “Je Tu Il Elle,” very much centered on the home and the destruction of that rigid routine, were in many ways a rebellion against her mother and that life. “No Home Movie” is a response to her earlier work, as she attempts to show reverence for her mother and their love. But Akerman can’t escape who she is, and tries to unearth memories from her mother’s past. She pokes and prods, trying to get her mother to discuss her time in Auschwitz and Poland before the war. Her mother resists. This is not their normal relationship, because they usually discuss the mundane; how beautiful Chantal’s eyes are, their eating habits, or the magic of Skype. In spite of Akerman’s resistance, love in her life has always leaned towards the ordinary, but that does not undermine its value. Their affection-laced conversations makes the film almost accessible — almost.

In spite of the film’s affection, “No Home Movie” remains an exercise in rigidly constructed formalism. Part of this experiment is one built on foreknowledge of Akerman and her work, and, as a result, bleeds occasionally into self-indulgence. Lambert’s documentary, then, offers important context to those who are unfamiliar with Akerman while offering insight into her methodology. In the case of “No Home Movie,” part of the difficulty is the nature of her chosen tools. Using handheld cameras and their built-in microphones means that not all the sound or images will be clear — something we naturally accept from home movies. but not from the cinema. The decision is thoughtful and clear, but it does not make it any more palatable.

Her preference for long shots has long been a staple of her career, but it is telling that this stylistic choice is still a challenge. In this film, the long conversations between her and her mother are full of love and humor, those scenes are hardly a challenge, though Akerman frames these shots to distort rather than showcase her mother. Chantal’s mother remains a mystery to her; she shows that to us through her framing or her use of focus. Still, these scenes are pleasurable. The long shots are more testing when she focuses on the lack of persons. Empty apartments, and drifting shots of the Israeli desert — another evocation of the troubled nature of home that Akerman seems to struggle with in regards to her Jewish background.

In “I Don’t Belong Anywhere,” Aurore Clément, who starred in Akerman’s 1978 film “Les Rendez-vous d’Anna” describes the film’s premiere and how Delphine Seyrig, the star of “Jeanne Dielman,” warned her not to attend. Clément, believing herself courageous and mature went anyway, ready for the reactions no matter how much people disliked the film. Unexpectedly, she was physically attacked and had to be escorted out of the theater. How could a film, in particular one where fundamentally little happens, inspire such rage?

After the press screening of “No Home Movie” in Locarno, there were audible boos. This speaks to Akerman’s continued ability to confront audiences rather than placate to them. Her work, even when it is laden by love, challenges people on a primal level. Akerman lives up to Locarno’s reputation for showcasing difficult films that face audiences with their biases and preconceptions. Above all else Akerman brings us into her world, and through her challenging form allows us to understand her fragmented understanding of home. For her, home is not a physical space, but a subjective experience wrought with insecurities, fears, and a vagabond spirit. For Akerman, home was her mother.

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