Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie traveled the festival circuit for a year before arriving on the streaming service MUBI in the summer of 2016. By the time I saw it, I had already caught up with seven previous Akerman films in the preceding few months, an overdue education. The Belgian filmmaker created the digitally shot nonfiction film in tribute to her mother — a crucial source of inspiration throughout her career — as the older woman’s health began to fail. Natalia Akerman died in April 2014. After completing the film, Chantal Akerman took her own life on October 5, 2015, two days before No Home Movie played at the New York Film Festival. These sorrows are now inextricably linked to the movie itself, a document of loneliness and aging. Perhaps, three years ago, I was unsure of the extent to which real-life events were coloring the details on the screen, but something held me back from a full embrace of the movie, for whatever that’s worth. Suicide touches us all, at different times and in different ways, so it was worth giving the film a second look to see if and how it speaks to such an irreparable absence.
The two hours of No Home Movie were gleaned from about 40 hours of digital footage, much of it created by simply placing the camera on tables in Natalia Akerman’s Brussels apartment and letting it run for long stretches, allowing for naturalist behavior from the people on screen. Thus, many “scenes” unfold statically, with the camera holding its position as people walk around the rooms, converse, and eat at the kitchen table. There are mobile shots as well, to be sure, and handheld shots of Chantal Akerman having Skype conversations with her mother. The film jumps between its primary location and such far-flung spots as Oklahoma and Israel, reflecting the alternate meaning of the title, the story of someone without a fixed home. At first glance, this makes the movie feel like two very different films awkwardly spliced together: a rigorous geographical exploration — like her earlier, soundtrack-free films Hotel Monterey and From the East — and also a personal portrait, one that spends as much time as it can on quotidian life.
The direct antecedent to No Home Movie, as many have pointed out, is Akerman’s 1977 film News from Home, in which the director reads aloud letters from her mother in Belgium during the time that she lived and worked in New York City, as footage of the city plays on the screen. Here we have a precedent for the unique mix of impersonal presentation and intensely personal content to be found in No Home Movie. Natalia Akerman encouraged her daughter in her career aspirations but was unhappy with her decision to live an ocean away for a time, and Chantal expresses ambivalence about that fact. This complex relationship, defined by affection and respect but burdened with a certain distance, still informs their lives four decades later. The critic J. Hoberman, writing for Tablet Magazine, connects Chantal’s feelings for her mother to her experience as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, with the accompanying desire to keep her parents’ memories alive. The filmmaker broaches the subject delicately and sparingly. This is no piece of investigative journalism. The viewer may regret how little is ultimately said about the most difficult of subjects, but Akerman’s main goal was to see the person, not her story.
No Home Movie can correctly be described as a difficult film, more moving in retrospect than while one is actually watching it. The free rein given to unbroken static takes leads to a number of longueurs. One of the director’s signatures, the right-to-left tracking shot out of a moving vehicle, arrives in the middle of the film. The Israeli landscape of the shot is stark and riveting, with a pipeline occasionally jutting out of the ground like a sea serpent. I just feel like there could have been more control over the contrast between shots like that and the rigid tightness of the apartment scenes. Other striking images, like a shadow on rippling water or sunlight streaming through blinds, are no less beautiful for their digital video presentation, but they felt like concessions to a potentially bored audience. Some might find the relative looseness of this film’s construction to be liberating, but I find that I lose my way.
I have nothing but respect for the way that Chantal Akerman can so completely avoid sentimentality even while running headlong into such unfathomably emotional subjects as the Holocaust and a dying mother. There’s a way of approaching a movie like this that’s too sickly sweet for words, but Akerman was not at all that kind of artist. In her own unmistakably personal way, she tried to tell the truth. That’s enough of a legacy for anyone. Though I still hold this particular movie of hers at a slight distance, maybe that’s all right. I’m still moved by the first and last shots and how they map out an emotional journey. In the first, we see a tree (again, in Israel) buffeted by strong winds, with a dusty road in the far background. The take lasts three minutes and is as loud as the film gets. The last shot is better experienced than described, but suffice it to say that it shows stillness, silence, and heartrending absence, but also something that looks like repose. Cold comfort, this, if it’s even comfort at all. But it’s not to be forgotten.