When Chantal Akerman died last fall, film didn’t just lose one of its essential artists: it lost a director whose recent work still had the capacity to enthrall. Ostensibly addressing the death of her mother, her last documentary No Home Movie concerns itself, as do all her great films, with presence: how a woman impresses herself on a physical space, be it in an apartment in a Brussels banlieue or in the American South; how a woman influences the patterns of behavior of dependents; how a woman behaves. Like Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles forty-one years ago, Akerman questions the rituals and patterns of the quotidian. She isn’t interested in what lies beneath – she interrogates what’s in from of us, in plain sight.
In No Home Movie, Akerman asks: who is more in plain sight than our mothers, their presences taken for granted during birthdays, anniversaries, or forced conversations? Natalia Akerman, a Polish Holocaust survivor, is shown quietly slipping away, her memory sharp but her grasp on the present frail and almost spectral. Her movements stand in contrast to the force of her daughter’s as she, say, peels potato skins; it isn’t a question of fast or slow so much as relativity and the appreciation of movement, for Akerman is the great cinematic poet of mundanity. Watching Natalia shuffle from room to laptop for Skype sessions (with surprising ease!) reminded me of an observation by Sam Adams during his A/V Club interview with Akerman several years ago: “The home is a source of anxiety. It’s not a place where people go to rest.” To avoid the convention of two shots Akerman films their conversations from a distance, often with the camera on the kitchen counter facing their backs This not only creates the impression of eavesdropping but allows the audience to absorb Natalia in the totality of her living space; offscreen are presumably the nurses and caretakers who watch her while Akerman is filming in another part of the globe.
Although not as searching or fully integrated as, for example, South, No Home Movie is a worthwhile coda. I liked its mild self-congratulation: Akerman the director, vocation and avocation united, to quote Robert Frost. “I film everything!” she says after Natalia makes a passing remark tinged with light mockery. “Everything” includes a nearly ten-minute opening sequence of a tree in a desert. The crackling of branches as the wind rustles them has a Bressonian tactility. Unlike Monet and his haystacks, Akerman isn’t interested in the recording infinitesimal changes in light and shadow. She seems enraptured by this dessicated plant to the point of self-hypnosis, which, I think, is part of her method; Akerman is fascinated by the thingness of things. Those unaccustomed to Akerman’s methods may go mad; acclimated to her rhythms, charmed by her obsessions, I went along.
The material’s autobiographical tug gives it extra-diegetic resonance too: not long after the death of Natalie, the woman that the gay Akerman loved with all her heart, Akerman ended her own life with sleeping pills. Earlier in No Home Movie Natalia nods in agreement when Akerman remarks that in the Jewish religion children respect not love their parents. Irony works in cold, inexorable ways.