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The films of Belgium’s feminist auteur Chantal Akerman have never been considered easy viewing. Intellectually enriching, yes, but not mainstream entertainments in that check-your-brains-at-the-door kind of way. Seen from that perspective, her latest work, No Home Movie, is an addition that’ll fit snugly alongside its predecessors. Apparently filmed over several years, this documentary was shot mostly inside the home of the now 65-year-old director’s Jewish mother, who came to Belgium in 1938 from Poland to escape the Nazis. Partly an autobiographical account about her own family history and partially a work that will fill in gaps or further explain choices in some of the director’s previous works, this is a film that will be of interest to Akerman acolytes only.
The virtue of patience is often evoked when people talk about the filmmaker’s most famous work, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a three-hour-plus look at the quotidian activities of a hausfrau and one-client-a-day prostitute over the course of several slow-moving — yet in hindsight quite event-filled — days. Something similar is certainly necessary here, though the timeframe is murkier and things don’t end with a death onscreen, though press materials suggest Akerman’s mother died not long after this movie wrapped.
If anything, the film feels like a daughter’s last attempt to connect with her mother, who is slowly slipping away from her. But the film takes seven whole minutes before we’re inside her mother’s home, with Akerman first offering up a shot of an arid and windswept Mediterranean landscape (Israel?) for several minutes and then cutting to the verdant parks and backyards of Brussels before finally moving the camera into her mother’s middle-class home. In hindsight, the message is clear: This is everything that her mother, who hardly leaves her apartment anymore, is missing. Though the opening also functions as a sort of litmus test for the audience: Only if you have seen some of Akerman’s previous films and you are familiar with her radical, semi-experimental modus operandi will you sit through over 400 seconds of footage that don’t tell a story or have no clear function (or at least not yet) before things finally really start.
Initially, Akerman and her editor Claire Atherton, the only other crewmember credited, simply show Chantal’s mother putter about the house, doing nothing much in particular. In one scene, Mum and daughter chat and eat potatoes in the kitchen — an intentional nod to the famous props from Jeanne Dielman? — though for practically the entire film, Akerman, who also handled camera duties, remains at least partially obscured or actually off-screen, leaving her mother in the starring role, though even she occasionally disappears from view while the camera keeps rolling.
“I want to show there’s no distance in the world,” Chantal, now in Oklahoma, explains to her mother at one point, while filming her own computer screen on which she’s having a Skype conversation with the home front back in Brussels. “You’ve always got these ideas,” her mother retorts, at once admiringly and with a sigh that seems to suggest she doesn’t necessarily understand what her daughter is talking about anymore, though she does know she can be proud of her.
Between more enigmatic shots, such as arid landscapes viewed from a speeding car or an upside-down chair in the backyard, there are shards of indoor conversations about her mother’s mother, who was a feminist avant la lettre; her father’s mother, who was destroyed by a combination of her menopause, diabetes and the war, and memories of Akerman’s childhood and how her late father pulled her out of Jewish School (“If you’re the best of your class, school is useless!” was his reasoning). The biggest chunk of information comes from a ten-minute conversation with her mother in the kitchen about 40 minutes in, and fills in audiences about how the Akermans arrived in Belgium in the late 1930s (Chantal was born in 1950). But these glimpses of family history are never connected to any larger story, remaining floating bits of information to quite a frustrating extent. What does emerge from the (one supposes chronological) footage is how her mother’s health is steadily declining.
The footage and sound quality is mediocre (big-screen projection didn’t do the film any favors in Locarno) and clearly, Akerman is more interested in timing and rhythms than in creating beautiful images per se, sometimes holding the camera so close to her computer screen she creates nothing more than a fuzzy haze of blurry movements. At other times, such as when Chantal and her mother keep saying goodbye to each other over Skype for minutes on end, there’s an elegiac quality that suggests Akerman is indeed using the film to say goodbye to her own mother, though that very private act has become part of a very elliptical art film. Since from her other features it is clear she’s an uncompromising director, it should perhaps come as no surprise that this film is as unapologetically personal and self-absorbed as it is, making no attempt to draw in viewers perhaps unfamiliar with the filmmaker.
Indeed, for viewers unfamiliar with Akerman and her cinema, there is a much more accessible portrait of a Jewish mother in Brussels facing her last days that came out this year: Sylvain Biegeleisen’s gorgeously shot, hilarious and touching Twilight of a Life. But for those looking to supplement their insight into films such as Akerman’s News From Home, her 1976 feature in which she corresponded with her mother in Brussels from New York, No Home Movie might work as a slender addition to and partial explainer of her impressive and very personal oeuvre.
Production companies: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films
Writer-Director: Chantal Akerman
Producer: Chantal Akerman
Director of photography: Chantal Akerman
Editor: Claire Atherton
Sales: Doc & Film International
No rating, 115 minutes
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