There's a scene in Chantal Akerman's latest and regrettably final film, No Home Movie, where her doting mother—a Holocaust survivor nearing the end of her life in Belgium—showers the filmmaker with compliments over a haphazard assembly of lunch items at the kitchen table. "You were the most beautiful," Akerman's mother says. "You had the most beautiful eyes." Recalling the way passers-by used to stop in the street to compliment her infant daughter's beaux yeux, she laments the way her own irises have lost their pigment. "It's normal," Chantal says calmly. Crunching on a pickle, the daughter chalks it up to an inevitable part of the aging process, like going gray: "Where's all your brown hair?" The women share a laugh. The moment is a little bit sad and a little bit sweet, but above all else, it's a testament to the unwavering commitment to time and its discontents in Akerman's work.
Of course, it's now impossible to watch No Home Movie without being profoundly affected by the knowledge of Akerman's sudden death. The news of her passing cast a palpable pall over the film's US premiere at the New York Film Festival on Wednesday. As of just a few weeks ago, the festival's director Kent Jones reminded the audience during a touching introduction to the screening, Akerman was set to present her film in person and take questions from the audience. Then came news that she wouldn't be making the trip.
Set almost entirely in her mother's Brussels apartment, No Home Movie is firmly rooted in the poetics of the mundane. "As elemental as it gets," as Mr. Jones noted. Indeed, the whole film is shot by Akerman and Akerman alone, her little camera either moving along with her through doors and hallways, or holding steady on frequently empty rooms, while the sound of tired feet shuffling along the tile floor can be heard from just beyond the frame.
The prevalence of the domestic recalls Akerman's early shorts—particularly "La Chambre," a slow, 360-degree encirclement of the filmmaker's own bedroom—as well as her magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the three-hour exploration of a mother's daily routine that consists of cooking, cleaning, and prostitution. Akerman was just 25 when she introduced the world to Jeanne Dielman and changed cinema forever. Her films created a syntax with which to explore the inner lives of women, largely through meticulous attention to the spaces they inhabited; it was a minimalist aesthetic with maximum emotional impact.
"Some words that spring to mind about Akerman's work are: annoying, irritating, stubborn—but in the best possible sense," critic Phillip Lopate wrote in a recent piece on the director for Indiewire. "She was not obliging, thank God. She was not afraid to try your patience." Indeed, Akerman's films are, without exception, as challenging as they are hypotonic. Her takes can be painfully long, her sequences decidedly devoid of "events." It's work designed to vex and push, to make us wait and then provide no concrete rewards for doing so—again, in the best possible sense.
Akerman's world is completely free of labels and chock full of cigarettes.
Other words that come to mind about Akerman's cinema include: unadorned, rigorous, brave. Hers is a cinema full existential angst. Perhaps depression, yes—but also a relentlessly determined energy and enthusiasm for the art of observation. Akerman's world is completely free of labels and chock full of cigarettes.
Despite the undercurrent of sadness and pending loss, there's an overwhelming warmth to No Home Movie that exists not only in the very commitment to making such a film to begin with, but in the ease of conversation between mother and daughter, whether they're discussing where the dust rags are kept or recalling the family's rejection of religion following the Holocaust. The "action" of the film unfolds alternately around the kitchen table or the computer. (Between visits, while Akerman is away traveling for work, the two women Skype to stay in touch). These conversations are especially endearing, replete with false endings that lead to multiple goodbyes and infinite bisous. "Why do you have to film me?" her mother asks Chantal during one such call. "Because I want to show that there is no distance in the world," Akerman responds.
The real eradication of distance, though, is between Akerman and her work; her presence can always be felt whether she's in front of or behind the camera. Under the circumstances, it's hard not to look for—perhaps even impose—meaning that might not otherwise be there, to grasp for some kind of finality. The striking opening shot of a small tree bracing itself against the harsh winds of a desert landscape is but one example of an Akerman image with infinite room for metaphor. What are we to make of this? That life is ultimately solitary? That Akerman felt alone?
"The moment life departs the body it belongs to death," Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, ruminating over his father's death in My Struggle. Akerman's, thankfully, belongs to cinema.