“When I see you like that I want to squeeze you in my arms”
I didn’t want Chantal Akerman‘s last film No Home Movie to be the first of hers I watched, but circumstances didn’t comply. The personal documentary’s brief history is intriguing with critical consensus seeming to be skew towards failure before her suicide (some talk posing its mixed response at Locarno as a possible cause) and success afterwards. I don’t know if her death impacted people’s interpretations, but I can see why it could. On this side of the auteur’s passing, these quiet moments of isolation and solitude mixed with obvious displays of love opposite Mom lend a melancholy that sets it up as a sort of visual suicide note. One sequence drives the point further, admitting she has nobody but mother and sister—the former not long for this world.
She did, however. Between friends, peers, and wife Sonia Wieder-Atherton, there were people for whom she could confide in and love beyond her mother Natalia. But there’s something about this woman’s mental and emotional fortitude after fleeing Poland for Belgium with her parents before all were sent back to Auschwitz, she the only survivor. Chantal sees her mother as a hero, someone to remain connected to for stories and memories that can be captured and cherished on film. She sees her mom alone within a big home, too weak to stay outside for long stretches of time but not disconnected to the world thanks to technological advancements such as Skype. So what follows is an endearingly cathartic look at mother and daughter, their bond true and love unwavering.
But how does that appeal to a broader audience? How do extended, static scenes of branches blowing in the wind or empty rooms Natalia may not enter impact outsiders to the nuance of the Akerman family nucleus? Personally: not much. The only moments that truly captivated me were the ones where the two women talk about the war. Hearing stories about Natalia’s migration to Belgium, the people who helped, and those who smuggled others across borders are extremely fascinating. Chantal could have easily made a film about her mom’s history and experiences, but probably knew opening those memories wouldn’t be something the elderly woman wanted to do today. So we hear them in bits and pieces over dinner instead, each devoid of context and without their full weight.
Sometimes it’s just Chantal yelling because her mother can’t understand her through the computer. Sometimes it’s private conversations Chantal shouldn’t hear, talk about how her filming is a big part of Natalia’s anxiety. But this isn’t an unfiltered look at the family either. There’s internally censorship happening, Natalia explaining how she wants to shower her daughter with praise but can’t because she doesn’t want strangers to hear what she has to say. So even if it feels as boring, dry, and inclusive as home movies often do, it isn’t actually one. This is a bona fide film, an artwork to be intentionally shared with the masses. That’s its purpose. So while technology brings them “physically” closer in a virtual way, it increases the gap where intimacy is concerned.
It becomes less about Natalia trapped in Brussels and unable to travel with her daughters like she did to Venice for a film festival two years prior and more about Chantal’s feelings of being lost and adrift. The director is without a home, constantly leaving and coming and needing to film to stay grounded in a fast-moving existence. We see the majesty of the places she may go, but we don’t hear joy or emotion at all. Everything is serene yet perhaps depressing. Chantal gets to witness nature and these wondrous sites, but they’re all ultimately just as hollow and empty as the rooms in Natalia’s apartment. Unless these places can be shared, they’ll remain prisons no matter how expansive they prove in the grand scheme of things.
Do I feel this because the movie makes it so or is it me projecting her death upon it? Does her suicide reinterpret the film as a warning and/or a goodbye? I can never watch it as anything else. But I also don’t want to hold it up as greater than it is as a result. I don’t want factors that occurred outside of the film itself—let alone afterwards—overshadow the fact that I really had a hard struggle getting through it on a purely cinematic basis of its pacing and extreme objectivity. Once a landscape shot began I found myself drifting off, knowing nothing will happen until the scene shifts and dialogue returns. These lengthy interludes didn’t provide moments for reflection, though. They simply frustrated me.
We receive so little when Chantal and Natalia are onscreen together that extended shots away make it seem like we got less. Mom has no mustard. Her vibrant eyes turned muted in old age. She’s tired and wants to sleep but her daughters won’t let her. It’s day-to-day minutiae becoming forced with the camera’s presence to the point of Natalia seeming fed up. Suddenly their conversations are exposed as the impersonal, mechanical discourses they are. She wants to hear about her daughter’s adventures. She wants to hear stories of excitement that her lot in life cannot provide. And through Chantal’s refusal we begin to understand the director’s self-imposed isolation when together or alone. Her mother couldn’t coax her out; perhaps now we see no one could.