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Motherless Brussels: Notes on Chantal Akerman’s ‘No Home Movie’

Thirteen ways of looking at the great filmmaker, two years after her death by suicide

J. Hoberman
October 04, 2017
©Elizabeth Lennard/Opale/Leemage
©Elizabeth Lennard/Opale/Leemage
©Elizabeth Lennard/Opale/Leemage
©Elizabeth Lennard/Opale/Leemage

1. Chantal Akerman’s last film, No Home Movie, was clearly something more than a movie for her—and since she took her own life less than two months after completing it and only days before its first public screening at the New York Film Festival, it is now something more than a movie for us.

Most simply described, the film is a portrait of the artist’s octogenarian mother Natalia (Nelly) Akerman or, more precisely, a portrait of the artist’s relationship with her mother. Akerman’s raw, nearly two-hour digital video assemblage conveys loss, displacement, and ambivalence in its very title. Is it to be read as the assertive “No Home-Movie” or the plaintive “No-Home Movie”?

At once presumptuous and unpretentious, No Home Movie is an emotional, essentially private working-out of a second-generation Holocaust survivor’s conflicted feelings or maybe what Freud would call a woman’s pre-Oedipal attachment to her mother. Almost incidentally, it provides a prism through which to view the Brussels-born filmmaker’s brilliant, erratic, essential oeuvre.


2. Akerman’s parents were Polish Jews whose families had immigrated to Belgium before World War II; during the Nazi occupation, her father went into hiding, her mother was betrayed and deported to Auschwitz. Both returned to Brussels after the war where they married and their daughter was born in 1950.

The long shadow cast by Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the masterpiece Akerman made at age twenty-five, depicting, often in real time, the routine of a middle-aged single mother played by Delphine Seyrig, has lain across her career. But the artist has also lived her entire life in the shadow of the past.

“I was born into trauma,” she told the French film theorist Nicole Brenez during the course of a long, remarkably candid interview published as a small book in 2011.


3. No Home Movie is not an easy movie. A few boos were heard during the press screening at the Locarno Film Festival where it had its premiere last summer. One reviewer noted that, “at times, the imagery feels so personal, we can scarcely comprehend what we are watching.” Another observed of the movie’s public screening that “seeing it projected on the big screen” for an audience of a thousand people “felt almost indiscreet.”

“It is as if Chantal Akerman, perhaps for the first time in her career, has revealed the core of her work and her wounds in the most naked of ways,” Canadian critic and programmer Andrea Picard wrote, citing Akerman’s “frequent focus on confinement, repetition, and confrontation; her longing to be elsewhere; her dizzying instability.”

To which I would add, her feelings of displacement, loss, and ambivalence.


4. When asked by Brenez to describe herself, Akerman replied, “My first response would be, ‘I’m a Jewish girl,’ ” adding that she “stayed a girl, the daughter of my mother.”

Jewish daughter-ness is one existential condition that informs many, if not most, of Akerman’s several dozen features, documentaries, and video installations, as well as her worldview. Another is a simultaneous rejection and fear of losing one’s home. Jeanne Dielman’s flat may be her prison, but other movies, including the comedies A Couch in New York (1996) and Tomorrow We Move (2004), are predicated on the loss of an apartment.

Akerman’s characters often dream of being someplace else—she herself had no fixed abode, having restlessly shuttled between Brussels, New York, and Paris. The Locarno Film Festival where No Home Movie had its premiere also featured a documentary portrait of the artist suggestively titled, I Don’t Belong Anywhere.


5. Working with rigorous concepts, Akerman is essentially a structural filmmaker. At the same time, the logic behind her movies is intensely private.

Jeanne Dielman, she has maintained, was a response to her mother’s self-chosen domestic servitude. Akerman made her first short film Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968) in her parents’ kitchen, casting herself as a sort of teenaged Charlie Chaplin who violently travesties a series of household chores. Although in another psychodrama, the 1974 feature Je tu il elle (I You He She) she filmed herself making love to a female friend, No Home Movie may be even more intimate.

Saute ma ville’s youthful call to revolt was the first of a series of films—including Jeanne Dielman, and its follow-ups News From Home (1976), and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (Anna’s Meetings, 1978)—seemingly addressed to Nelly Akerman.


6. No Home Movie is only obliquely concerned with the Holocaust. Akerman has said that her mother, who died at age eighty-six in 2014, was loath to speak about her wartime experiences; in the film, the subject is only broached by the filmmaker in a conversation with one of her mother’s caretakers.

Like many of Akerman’s films, No Home Movie could be described as a series of static still life compositions. But it is also a yahrtzeit. Opening with the image of a tree battered by the wind on a barren hill somewhere in Israel, No Home Movie puts Nelly Akerman’s comfortable and supremely orderly Brussels apartment (not the one in which Akerman grew up) in the context of Jewish history. Nelly’s apartment is Akerman’s true motherland—one she left and returned to for much of her life.

Akerman explores this maternal space or sets her small digital video camera down on a surface and lets it record, even when she leaves the room. This leads to some interesting material. “She knows you’re anxious,” an aide tells Nelly of Chantal. “She doesn’t know it’s because of her.”


7. The literature on second-generation Holocaust survivors is extensive and vivid. In her memoir cum study of the subject, After Such Knowledge, Eva Hoffman describes parental mood swings, extreme anxiety attacks, and nightmares.

“Over and over again, in second-generation literature, testimony is given to a helpless, automatic identification with parental feelings and their burden of intense despondency,” Hoffman writes. “Over and over, the children speak of being permeated by sensations of panic and deadliness, of shame and guilt [as well as the imperative] to perform impossible psychic tasks: to replace dead relatives, or children who have perished; to heal and repair the parents; above all to rescue the parents.”

Thus, perhaps, the Akerman’s preoccupation with memory and absence. And guilt: She told Brenez that Jeanne Dielman was a film on “lost Jewish rituals.” At one point in No Home Movie, Akerman tries to get her mother to remember her Hebrew blessings; later she reminds Nelly that it was her father who removed her from a Jewish day school.


8. For years Akerman hoped to make a movie based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s epic family novels The Manor and The Estate, which she connected with her own vanished family history in Poland. (It is fascinating to think what she would have done with the material, which is so focused on fathers and men in general. The main protagonist does, however, have four daughters.)

The Manor would have provided Akerman with entry into a lost world. With D’est (From the East, 1993), a work that exists both as 35mm feature and a multichannel video installation, she went looking for it. The movie is a travelogue through history. Journeying across the no-longer-Communist world, from eastern Germany into her parents’ native Poland and finally Russia, the movie is in a sense a single forward camera movement into the past—without any resolution.

Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1996), an installment in the French TV series “Filmmakers of Our Time,” uses both D’est and Jeanne Dielman as forms of personal prehistory.


9. No Home Movie’s most extraordinary sequences are the two Skype conversations between mother and daughter. Akerman films her anxious mother’s image as well as her own holding the camera. Chantal attempts to direct Nelly, while Nelly’s yearning for Chantal is as effusively expressed as it was in the letters in News From Home, written forty years before. Chantal shouts, “I want to show there is no more distance in the world.” Nelly muses, “When I see you like that I just want to squeeze you in my arms.” The women can’t bring themselves to say goodbye. In the second conversation, the filmmaker zooms in on the pixels when it comes time to end the call.

The separation of parent and child that Ozu stages in Late Spring, Akerman’s film is. The theme of children lost and found, deserted long-suffering mothers, and ungrateful offspring were a staple of the American Yiddish stage, as well as Yiddish talkies. Critics called them “mama-dramas.”

The parent-child relationship central to immigrant and post-immigrant Jewish culture permeates the Akerman oeuvre, albeit with a Freudian twist. Verging on psychodrama, Les rendez-vous d’Anna has its peripatetic heroine, a filmmaker who is clearly a stand-in for Akerman, meeting her mother and confessing to a lesbian love affair as they share a bed in a Brussels hotel room.


10. Akerman’s only overtly Jewish film before No Home Movie was the English-language American Stories: Food, Family, and Philosophy (1989). Shot by New York’s Williamsburg Bridge and suggesting a misplaced desire to do Woody Allen, the movie is a warm-hearted morass of jokes, vaudeville shticks, and anecdotes (many culled from the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward). As cozy as it is, the absence of parents is a recurring theme.

The ultimate absence is, of course, Nelly. Toward the end of No Home Movie (and as presaged by windblown Israeli footage), she starts to decline. Her living room is darkened; she is bedridden and coughing. Chantal and her younger sister Sylviane try to keep their mother awake with conversation. “We’re even closer than before,” Nelly tells Sylviane with regard to Chantal, who is out on the terrace taking a phone call. The last words we hear Nelly say are, “Where is Chantal?”

No Home Movie’s final scenes are heart-rending in their understatement. Israel appears as a desolate field of rocks, and, newly an orphan, Chantal films herself in the apartment’s little guest room, tying her shoes and drawing the curtains. The movie’s last shots ponder the order of Nelly’s apartment and its emptiness.


11. Akerman has said that Jeanne Dielman was inspired by her mother’s need, after surviving Auschwitz, to turn her Brussels apartment into a safe-house, and Nelly Akerman is, in a sense, the protagonist of Akerman’s great portrait of New York City, News From Home. The filmmaker’s cool, visceral images of Lower Manhattan are accompanied by occasional readings of letters from her mother in Brussels. Barely audible over the ambient street noise, these naïve, repetitive expressions of a near pathological maternal concern underscore the city’s strangeness and distance from Europe. (Years later, Akerman brought her mother to New York, not physically, but as the subject of a three-channel video installation “Maniac Shadows” and a reading, “My Mother Laughs,” at the Kitchen in April 2013.)

The tale of a belated immigrant, News From Home could have been called A Brivele der Mamen [A Little Letter to Mother], after the ferociously popular turn-of-the-century Yiddish ballad that served as the title of one of the last Yiddish-language talkies made in Poland before World War II. News From Home is an avant-garde analogue and so is its belated sequel, No Home Movie.


12. A 115-minute film hewed from some 40 hours of footage shot over a period of several months, No Home Movie has a sense of Warholian acceptance. The lo-res feel is provocatively amateurish. For the filmmaker, every shot is precious and saturated with meaning.

Does the movie give a full portrait of Nelly? Akerman generally shows her mother to good advantage while she herself can appear autocratic or regressive. The movie seems suffused in mutual admiration. Nelly rhapsodizes over Chantal’s beauty as a child; Akerman recalls her childish passion for her mother. Speaking to Brenez, however, Akerman was somewhat bitter. “I always thought that my mother was the most beautiful woman and that she had a mad love for me, as I for her. Finally I realized that she couldn’t love anyone but herself.”

Akerman portrayed this sort of unrequited love in two of her last films, Almayer’s Folly (2011), a mash-up inspired by Joseph Conrad’s first novel, and The Captive (2000), a provocative adaptation of the fifth novel in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Almayer’s Folly suggests European colonialism as a madman’s fantasy—namely a white father’s hopeless passion for his mixed-race daughter. Simon, the abject Marcel character in The Captive, tries and fails to hold on to his elusive, narcissistic lover, here named Ariane.


13. The Captive is a great negative love story, and so in a sense is No Home Movie. As Simon interrogates Ariane, so (far more gently) Chantal questions her mother, and as Ariane leaves Simon, so (with a terrible finality) Nelly will leave her daughter. And then Chantal left us.


Read more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine here.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.