Akerman: No Home Movie (2016)
From the opening shot of No Home Movie, it’s clear that Chantal Akerman’s final film will also be one of her greatest. In the foreground of a desert vista – later suggested to be that of the Oklahoma dust bowl – is a gnarled and weathered tree, in the background a series of sandy, rocky hills traversed by a dirt road. From time to time, cars move through the deep distance, but the focus of the opening shot is squarely on the wind moving through the tree, in what would play as a classically cinephilic tableau were it not for something a bit off-kilter, something that disrupts conventional analog attachment, as the wind starts to intensify and bring a dust storm into existence, gradually occluding everything in the kind of granular miasma that works so well with digital technology. It’s an appropriate opening for a film that very often plays as Akerman’s swansong for cinema, as well as a swansong for her career, which of course also means that it inevitably plays as a swansong for the legacy of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which haunts No Home Movie more than any other film in Akerman’s body of work.
Nevertheless, I was still surprised at just how elegantly and perfectly No Home Movie announces itself as the spiritual successor to Jeanne Dielman – still one of the most singular films I have ever seen – as well as how deftly Akerman manages to revise, refresh and expand that original vision without it ever feeling as if she is nostalgically returning to past glories. Uncompromising and experimental to the last, No Home Movie centres on Akerman’s actual mother, Natalia Akerman, in the months leading up to both of their deaths. As with Jeanne Dielman, the first part of the film focuses on Natalia as she goes through her daily routines and rituals in her Brussels apartment, although the compositions are nowhere near as static or as immaculately framed as in Jeanne Dielman, with the camera tending to hover, off-kilter, in ways that preclude both the symmetrical and austerely occluded sight lines that made Akerman’s greatest character feels so scrupulously scrutinised and so immune to scrutiny at the same time. Even in the still shots here the camera moves back and forth in a slightly pendular motion, as if reflecting Akerman’s own mild trembles, while the preferred c0mpositional device tends to be doors left ajar, framing the action in an accidental, awry kind of manner. Given that the bright, glary light also tends to leach Akerman’s mise-en-scenes of the deep umbers and ochres of Jeanne Dielman – at one point Natalia comments that her eyes are losing their pigmentation – the visual field as a whole is less composed and less constrained than in most of Akerman’s previous films, although that also creates a new kind of optimism and a new sense of furtively and fugitively grasped ecstasy.
As the camera starts to sink into the rhythm of Natalia going about her daily routines, Akerman herself starts to become more and more a part of the film, initially by way of a series Skype conversations that she holds with her mother from Oklahoma, where she is presumably working on a new project. Moving from shots of her desktop, to shots of her filming equipment reflected in the screen, to shots of the actual Skype window depicting Natalia, her directorial role is both affirmed more emphatically than in any of her previous works but also more dispersed and diffused thanks to the autonomous digital agency of the Skype camera itself. Neither completely in the film nor completely behind the camera – this is not quite a film and not quite a home movie – Akerman’s presence often reminded me of what Shane Denson has described as the “diegetic cameras” of post-cinematic media, devices that “seem not to know their place with respect to the separation of diegetic and nondiegetic planes of reality” and which “therefore fail to situate viewers in a consistently and coherently designated spectating-position.” As the point of departure for this semi-liberated camera – sometimes commanded by Dielman, sometimes depicting Dielman as she commands it, sometimes hovering free-floating behind or around her – these Skype sequences have an incredible visceral pull, partly because of Akerman’s peculiar capacity for knowing just how to let the camera rest to draw out the strangeness of what is before it. As with Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended, this works wonders with the Skype screen, although here the effect isn’t horror so much as a kind of cautious optimism – “because there is no distance in this world” – that makes these last few months between Akerman and her mother particularly precious and poignant.
Of course, for all the formal and technological experimentation, it is that mother-daughter relationship that is at the heart of the film. In a career full of alienated and frustrated characters, this is one relationship that feels authentically nourishing, since Akerman and Natalia seem to have a lived-in ease with each other and a tacit agreement about most things. Thinking aloud in tandem more than conversing in a conventional sense, there is a delightfully comic edge to their rapport – it is possibly Akerman’s funniest film – although it is the kind of comedy that emerges almost inadvertently out of utter familiarity paired with observational precision, rather than from any conscious or emphatic desire on Akerman’s part to make a comic film. Yet there is also a wider comic approach to history as well, a sense that the past is in some way resolved or at least addressed in a cathartic manner in the exchanges between these two women, which frequently turn on the history of their family over the course of the twentieth century, especially during World War II and the Holocaust. More than any of her previous films, Akerman here draws on her Jewish identity and background to create a deep and diasporic apprehension of both her mother and herself that often seems to anchor their interactions in the remote past (at once point they discuss the difference between Chaldean and Ashkenazi prayer traditions) or at least construe the present as a incipient remote past, a world on the verge of accelerating into history as well.
Throughout all these discussions, Akerman’s own face tends to be occluded – blurred out by glary light, shot from behind or cropped out of the frame, buried beneath her camera reflected in the screen of the laptop or – most memorably – relegated to the small box in the bottom right hand corner of the Skype interface. Yet this is still in some sense a self-portrait – all the more so, really, for all those elliptical and obtuse framings – which just makes the fact of her subsequent suicide all the more poignant, since there are many moments across the film when you can almost discern that final gesture being anticipated and processed. At the same time, however, that suicidal ideation feels part and parcel of a wider diasporic yearning as well, not merely for family but for oneness with all the vistas and spaces that Akerman uses as pillow shots between the her various interactions with Natalia. Alternating between Oklahoma and Brussels, these beautiful images are often where Akerman herself feels most present – a swansong for the two halves of her career, time spent in Brussels and time spent in the United States, that becomes even more pronounced as she returns to New York in the later part of the film. In large part, it is these pillow shots that prevent the film ever settling into one single genre or format, since their very scrupulousness often makes the rest of it feel like the mere draft of a film, or a film that might very well have started as a home movie but has since transformed into something else in the very process of being filmed. While that processual quality was certainly there in Jeanne Dielman, here it feels more embedded in the act of making the film – or at least that act is more foregrounded – making for an experience that almost seems to be generating and improvising itself before your eyes.
Nowhere is that clearer than in what is arguably the most bravura part of the film, an extended sequence towards the end that sees Akerman venturing out onto her mother’s balcony in the middle of the night, camera in hand. Cool, rainy and suffused with brief flashes of the street glimpsed through the washing-line, Akerman’s mise-en-scene exudes a mysterious and mystical darkness contoured only by her heavy breathing, the closest we get to her at any point in the film. Culminating the increasing gravitation of the camera towards the windows, the street and the world outside, as well as the sense that Akerman is moving closer and closer to some breathless threshold, the passage is all the more powerful in that it is not immediately clear what the scene is actually disclosing. At first it seems to be the nightly washing routine, with the sudden transition back into the brilliance of the laundry – white goods, bright sheets, tiled walls – almost seeming like a continuation and consummation of the nightscape rather than a departure from it. Certainly, laundries and washing spaces are sensuous and mysterious enough on their own terms, with Kate Bush and Matmos both having drawn upon the washing cycle as harbinger of exactly the same domestic music that Akerman visualises so mystically here. However, in an additional twist, this sequence culminates with one of the key emotional exchanges in the film, albeit dealt with so briefly and elliptically that you almost inevitably miss its key import, as Akerman shoots it through yet another door left ajar, this time revealing little more than a slab of darkness that is thrown into almost sculptural relief by the blinding brilliance of the laundry light and décor.
Even more astonishing than the night sequence is the fact that it remains just as pitch black the following morning, at least in the deepest recesses of the apartment, since it turns out that the fuses have blown overnight, leading Akerman to emerge from utter darkness, announcing herself to Natalia by name for the first time, to a strange luminous blue-green light that pervades every room and prompts the first daylight bridging shot between the apartment and garden, previously abstracted and sequestered into languorous pillow sequences. Indeed, is only at this point that we realise how little natural light the apartment gets – or how much artificial light it needs – as the porosity and permeability of every room and corridor intensifies with a yearning for some kind of communion with the wider universe that not even the camera can provide. For the first time in her film – possibly in her career – it feels as if we are witnessing Chantal, rather than Chantal Akerman, and that Chantal has managed to momentarily liberate Jeanne Dielman in the process, as we abruptly depart the apartment for one of the Oklahoma driving sequences that have occurred periodically throughout the film. Yet whether because the road is rougher or the camera is less fixed, this particular drive is nothing more than a series of jerky impressions, subsumed into the blinding glare of the sky for moments on end, with a rapture and abandon that is almost unbearably moving.
All in all, these are some of the purest and most beautiful conjunctions of images in Chantal’s career, and their drifting oscillation between home and homelessness – so characteristic of her career as a whole – made me wonder where the emphasis is meant to lie in the title. At first I read it as No “Home Movie” but in many ways it makes more sense as “No Home” movie, a film about homelessness, not just Chantal’s homelessness, or even Natalia’s homelessness, but the homelessness that always made her camera feel like a harbinger of digital dispersion and flux. For all that the visuals are extremely low quality – or because of it – Chantal manages to craft some of the most beautiful alternations between light and shadow I have ever seen in digital cinema, culminating with the last couple of shots, as breathless and moving a eulogy – both to herself and to Natalia – as could possibly be imagined. After a series of unbearably beautiful still shots of the Oklahoma desert and prairies – proof that Akerman could frame a vista as classically as anyone if she wanted – we’re presented with two final shots of Natalia’s apartment, with Natalia now conspicuously evacuated. In the first, Chantal exits her bedroom, which appears to have been emptied of all possessions, objects or luggage. In the second, we are presented with a long shot of the living room that returns us, finally, to the symmetry and stasis of Jeanne Dielman only for it to be disrupted, momentarily, at the last second, by a reflection in a concave surface that suggests some decisive action from Chantal – or the beginning of some decisive action – that is prevented from coming to completion by the final credits. Finally having found some space to move within the prisons she documented and enacted – however small that space might be – and yet still yearning for an action, a completion, a consummation that inevitably means the end of her films as we know them, it’s an image that summarises and eulogises its director more beautifully and poignantly than any other shot I have ever seen. Unbearably private and yet infinitely generous, it’s the kind of moment that bears and demands witness to one of the greatest and most uncompromising directors who has ever lived, visionary right until the very end.
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