NO HOME MOVIE: No Better Remembrance

Chantal Akerman’s final film, the documentary No Home Movie, premiered in the United States at the New York Film Festival on October 7, 2015 — a mere two days after Akerman’s death by apparent suicide at the age of 65. An intimate depiction of Akerman’s mother, Natalia, during her own final days, Akerman shot more than 40 hours of footage for No Home Movie, including aiming her ubiquitous camera at her laptop screen while chatting with her mother on Skype, before editing it into a two-hour portrait of one remarkable woman, mother and Holocaust survivor whose influence can be felt throughout Akerman‘s work. Released for streaming on MUBI to commemorate what would have been Akerman’s 70th birthday, No Home Movie is suffused with a deep sense of melancholy for lives lived and lost.

In Search of Lost Time

No Home Movie begins with an exceptionally long shot — nearly four minutes in length — of a tree being whipped violently by the wind. The length of the shot, combined with the ominous, almost thunderous quality of the wind, whipped my anxiety up into a tizzy as I waited for what would eventually come next. But such is Chantal Akerman’s use of time in cinema; her work frequently relies on lengthy shots that depict events passing in real-time. In her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, this serves to highlight the monotony of the protagonist’s daily routine, while in Hotel Monterey, these shots are used to explore the titular New York hotel. It’s a style of filmmaking that requires great patience from the audience, but when the filmmaker is Akerman, one is richly rewarded for the effort.

In No Home Movie, many lengthy shots are used to establish the daily life of Natalia Akerman in her apartment in Brussels. In most instances, Akerman sets up the camera and then quickly moves out from behind it to join her mother in the shot, such as when the two of them sit down to eat some potatoes Akerman has prepared. (Scenes of eating in the kitchen — the stereotypical center of feminine domesticity in the home — feature prominently in No Home Movie and in other Akerman films, including Jeanne Dielman.)

NO HOME MOVIE: No Better Remembrance
source: MUBI

Akerman’s camera periodically peers outside the window of the apartment where a lounge chair lies abandoned in the garden, untouched by anyone for who knows how long. Sometimes, the camera will appear to be shooting an entirely empty room, until Natalia slowly shuffles in and across the frame. The main action often does not happen in the center of the shot, making the presence of the camera feel almost incidental.

In other instances, such as when Akerman is shooting her mother while chatting over Skype, the camera can be seen in the lower corner of the screen, making its presence known as it hovers in front of Akerman’s own face while she zooms in on every detail of her mother’s until her wrinkles pixelate. When asked by Natalia why she has to shoot their Skype calls, which Akerman conducts from as far away as Oklahoma, her daughter tells her that it is to show how small our world has become.

The Sense of an Ending

Throughout No Home Movie, Akerman and her mother chat about the past, the present, and the future, albeit narrowly tiptoeing around one topic: the Holocaust. Natalia describes how a friend of her mother’s helped their family obtain papers and passage to Belgium from Poland, before Belgium surrendered to the Nazis and their family was shipped back home to Poland, to Auschwitz. Her time in the camp, however, is not discussed, apart from when Akerman tells her mother’s caregiver that it is “why my mother is like she is.” Indeed, one does not need to know of the horrors that Natalia personally witnessed to see how the experience shaped her as a person; she is strong in personality even as her body grows weaker.

Towards the middle of the film, another lengthy sequence takes the audience out of Natalia’s apartment and into a car driving through the desert; the scenery rolls by the windows and gradually evolves, palm trees replacing brush and vice versa. When we return to Natalia’s apartment, she seems much weaker, barely able to stay awake while Akerman and her younger sister, Sylvaine, attempt to get her to talk about what she did that day. Their frustrated efforts are as accurate a depiction of the grief that comes with realizing that an elderly relative is nearing the end of their life as I have ever seen onscreen.

NO HOME MOVIE: No Better Remembrance
source: MUBI

Natalia passed shortly after Akerman completed her months of shooting for No Home Movie, at the age of 86; the emotional turmoil of her passing resulted in Akerman being hospitalized with a nervous breakdown not long before she herself passed away. The final shot of No Home Movie lingers inside the living room of the apartment, empty of people but full of the memories of these two remarkable women. The tragedy of No Home Movie is that it now serves as an elegy for both Akerman’s mother and the filmmaker herself, yet when reflecting upon Akerman’s oeuvre — so deeply tied to her identity as a daughter — one cannot imagine a better way for her to be remembered.

Conclusion: No Home Movie

From her revolutionary depiction of real-time onscreen to her almost voyeuristic style of shooting her own life, No Home Movie epitomizes every quality that made Chantal Akerman’s cinema so groundbreaking.

What do you think? What is your favorite work by Chantal Akerman? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

No Home Movie is available to stream on MUBI starting June 6, 2020.

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