No Home Movie: SFF 2016

Infused with the long shadows of the past and ineluctable reflections of the future, No Home Movie (2015), Chantal Akerman’s final film before her death at the age of 65, is at once an elegy to her dying mother, Natalia, and a profound personal confession, as the filmmaker attempts to confront the possibility of a world without her ‘maman’.

Once again for Akerman her fixation with space takes centre stage; in this film the Belgian apartment of her dying mother which feels like both sacred refuge and shadowy tomb. Filming through curtains, and repeatedly moving from inside to outside, like a moth drawn towards the light but which can’t quite reach it,  Akerman constantly achieves a sense of confinement within the apartment. Her mother’s belongings and furniture become, in the typical frontal style that has made Akerman famous, relics like those found in a museum.

Akerman, as world-travelled filmmaker, cannot remain inside this space for very long. She is a figure that is always passing through, but never staying. As the title suggests, this is “No Home” for her. Her transience compounds the sense of inevitability when, in the last scene that we see her in, she takes her leave from her mother for the last time, drawing the curtains back and taking suitcase in hand. By contrast the filmmaker’s world, driven by the curiosity of an artist, opens up upon the large, rolling expanses of a desert (filmed in Israel).

And yet while Akerman contrasts the confinement of her mother against her own sense of freedom, I couldn’t help but feel that it was precisely in these spaces, in these “distances” (as she calls them in the film) that I feel her come closest to her mother. It’s almost as if Akerman has to create distance in order to draw closer to her, and in this sense I am reminded of her earlier film News from Home (1977) where she reaches out to her mother from the distance of New York. When Akerman is at home with Natalia if feels as if they talk rather than connect. As Natalia confides to her carer at one point, Chantal “never talks”, or at least “never says anything interesting”. It is conversely when they are apart that I feel the moments of greatest connection: in the way that Natalia’s face lights up on the skype screen, barely being able to conceal the joy of seeing her daughter; in the way that Akerman movingly films her own reflection in the same screen, blurring the two identities into one, her own outline woven into the eyes of her mother; or in the landscape where the two are joined together in their spiritual home, as one image suggests: two mountains facing each other, a small fault line running between them.

It’s hard to watch such a personal film. It’s even harder to watch it in light of the untimely death of its author. We still feel her presence so strongly emanating from the screen, still breathing on us like the wind that blows through the field of grass in one scene. Akerman is the tree of the film’s opening, battered by strong winds yet standing there triumphantly, surveying the terrain beneath her. In this image we can feel that she has finally come home.




Les Rendez-vous d’Anna

This extraordinary 1978 feature film by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman is the second film of hers I have seen this week – see my earlier review of her 1982 “Toute Une Nuit”.

Doors open and close as Anna moves through life, from the inside to the outside and back again, forever travelling, on trains, in cars, searching…for what? For something she’s lost? For something she’s yet to find? For the children she never had?

Anna, played by the inscrutable Aurore Clement, is a foil. The people around her talk to her, through her, but to themselves. She manages to move through life without ever really connecting. Even physical contact is transient, as the men in her life come and go, dressing and undressing.

This film is existentialism “par excellence” (to use a good french expression), with long, empty corridors running into the hallways of life, spilling out onto the streets where cars carry passengers through the darkness, like ships in the night.

Long, lingering shots are “de rigeur”, creating enough time and space to allow life to fill the cinema frames with its full presence, seeping into the shadowy emptiness like meandering wreaths of smoke from a contemplative cigarette.

Toute Une Nuit

I counted 75 credited actors in this 1982 feature film by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. And each one is gracefully given a time and space unique to them. The night itself is only one and is shared among them in a spirit egalitarian, espying their nocturnal escapades and disputes.

Doors open and close, heeled feet ascend and descend stairs, figures disappear and reappear down streetscapes, and the night comes and goes. Amid this dynamism are the lives of countless human beings, entangled in one another and in themselves.

However, in spite of this, there is a strange sense of loneliness about Akerman’s work. These characters seem to embrace one another in fleeting moments, as though desperately trying to hold onto something before it is taken away. Faces are obscured in half-darkness, and solitary figures disappear down streets into the void. Sounds of crowds, of connection, of life, always appear offscreen, seemingly beyond the reach of our characters.

Meanwhile the filmmaker herself watches on, like a voyeur, observing moments of delicate intimacy, yet unable to connect. This intimacy is enhanced by the sense of “real time”, with shots deliberately sustained to reinforce the moment’s presence. As the filmmaker says:

“Je voudrais que le spectateur éprouve une expérience physique par le temps utilisé dans chaque plan. Faire cette expérience physique que le temps se déroule en vous, que le temps du film rentre en vous”

“I want the spectator to feel a physical experience through the time used in each shot; to make this a physical experience in which time unfolds in you, in which the time of the film enters into you”.

Her rhythm slowed me down, and drew me into the present, like a meditation, but with strings attached: those existential strings that remind us of our frailty, our humanity, and our humility; those strings that tie us all together in the face of this one, endless night.