Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie is a beautiful film; a couple of days ago, in my review for Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, I argued that Zhangke’s film is about the dissolution of relationships due to a separation caused by time and distance. Here, in No Home Movie, we have a scene where Akerman Skype calls her mother—Akerman being in Oklahoma and her mother being in Belgium—and tells her that she called her in order to show how no amount of distance can separate them. That physical separation that divides people in Mountains May Depart doesn’t exist in Akerman’s world, and it makes No Home Movie an endearing film to watch because of Akerman’s devotion to her mother. Akerman’s love for her mother, which is partly the focus of the documentary, is evident of more than just a deep relationship between mother and daughter; that love and consequently Akerman’s relationship to her mother, is emblematic of Akerman’s cinematic career. To explain, Akerman’s mother has been a keen influence on Akerman’s films, particularly her early work.
In one of her first features, News From Home (1977), Akerman films New York City while reading out loud letters that her mother sent her. Even back then without the invention of Skype distance couldn’t separate Akerman and her mother who frequently exchanged letters with one another. The influence of Akerman’s mother on Akerman’s films can perhaps best be seen in what is regarded as her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In Jeanne Dielman, Akerman creates a fictionalized version of her mother subsequently called Jeanne Dielman.
Dielman is entrapped within her home, not because she is being held captive there, but because she is a housewife. With Jeanne Dielman, Akerman is arguing for the metaphorical captivity that the role of being a woman can entail. With such an influence on her films then, No Home Movie’s focal point on Akerman’s mother also makes it a documentary on Akerman’s films, particularly their origin point. No Home Movie’s insight into Akerman’s creativity make the film comparable to Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes, a similar documentary in that there, Varda also explores the parts of the world that have influenced her films while also at times she muses on her own personal life.
No Home Movie is about the domestic life of Akerman’s mother, Natalia. Akerman shot the film using handheld cameras, and the film is subsequently given the effect of being a home movie, pun unintended. Akerman’s camera style allows her to record intimate moments with her mother which comprises the bulk of No Home Movie’s footage. What’s featured in No Home Movie then, are dinners between Akerman and her mother, interviews concerning Akerman’s childhood and her mother’s experiences as a Jew during World War II, and other moments that are seemingly mundane, such as long-takes of Akerman travelling outside.
Akerman’s travel footage is exactly what opens the film, and it is these scenes that I think are perhaps the most challenging to watch due to their lack of context. Of course, as Kuleshov put forth so long ago, images can be given meaning in relation to their juxtaposition to other images and so perhaps Akerman’s travel footage does have meaning, we just have to find it. So then, is the travel footage Akerman includes simply experimental fodder or is there more to it? I see it as the latter.
Once again, comparing No Home Movie to Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes, The Beaches of Agnes included moments of Varda recording streetways, beach fronts, and other areas which influenced her cinematic career. In The Beaches of Agnes, due to Varda’s narration, we understand the context of the images without necessarily needing to interpret one. That objectivity is what’s missing from Akerman’s own travel footage in No Home Movie yet I see these scenes as functioning in the same manner as Varda’s film.
Akerman’s travel footage, consequently, be it a long-take from a moving vehicle or a tree blowing in the wind, can be seen as sources of influence upon her work. I mean this sincerely when I say that perhaps Akerman was caught by the beauty of such moments and felt the need to capture it—a need that could be satisfied due to the use of a modern, digital camera.
This aspect of Akerman’s camera technique also mean that No Home Movie can also be seen as partly being about the ubiquity of the camera, but here I’d like to catch myself and stop. While I do analyze films in my reviews, there is a fine line between attempting to analyze a film in what seems as a defense for the frustration that might arise from watching said film, and simply analyzing a film in order to prove a point.
No Home Movie is not an easy film to watch because of how impersonal and abstract at times it can be to the viewer, yet I do see the merits in this. Akerman has never been a conventional filmmaker and No Home Movie is no different from her other works in that regard. The subject matter in this film—Akerman’s dying mother—is very serious, and I think Akerman reflects that with her style in this film; she doesn’t seek to use music or other cinematic qualities that might influence a viewer’s emotion but rather, she uses a complex narrative to simply ask for sympathy. As I argued for the use of long-takes in my analysis of Jeanne Dielman, the same can be said here; the long-takes are moments that are meant to be self-reflective by forcing the audience to meditate on the image. Try thinking, what is Akerman—whose mother is dying—feeling?
For her final film, Akerman has returned to her roots but creates something more emotionally gripping by stripping away the fictional aspect of Jeanne Dielman. Some may call it bare-bones, but I see it as a way of Akerman pushing a new form of cinema that is challenging and full of meaning, rather than frustrating and empty.