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A Great Director's Last Look At Her Mother And Herself

In <em>No Home Movie</em>, the director, Chantal Akerman, films her elderly Polish mother in her Brussels apartment.
Courtesy of Icarus Films
In No Home Movie, the director, Chantal Akerman, films her elderly Polish mother in her Brussels apartment.

On the most recent Sight & Sound list of "The 50 Greatest Films of All Time" --- conducted every 10 years, it's the closest thing cinema gets to an official canon — Chantal Akerman's 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles was the only film directed by a woman, and a new addition at that. Currently tied at #35 (Psycho, Metropolis, and Sátántangó are keeping it prestigious company), Jeanne Dielman only stands to rise as its sphere of influence continues to increase. Over a mesmeric 201 minutes, Akerman makes a virtue out of mundanity, focusing on how the domestic routines of a middle-aged widow's life keep her penned in an existential prison. In its absolute rejection of narrative expectations, it remains one of the rare movies to open up the possibilities of what movies can do.

Last October, Akerman died, her death widely reported as a suicide occurring shortly after she was hospitalized for depression. Her final work, the personal documentary No Home Movie, premiered at Locarno the previous August, but in many respects, Akerman's death has given the film a context that's otherwise absent. It's about her elderly mother Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor whose own health was fading during the months it took Akerman to complete the project. Now that both women are gone — Natalia died shortly after filming ended — the desolate landscapes and empty rooms that populate No Home Movie feel all the more death-haunted and sad, and its endless longueurs more purposeful.

Looking outside a movie for context, however, isn't usually the way movies work. Just as any "home movie" will resonate the most with viewers closest to the people in it, No Home Movie will inevitably be more meaningful to those who have followed Akerman's career with keen interest. Given its emphasis on the mundane, the film could be seen as a documentary companion to Jeanne Dielman, but it's not nearly as rigorous or compelling in sketching Natalia's domestic life. Akerman doesn't need to build a psychological profile of her own mother; she's starting from a place of familiarity and doesn't seem concerned about bringing the unfamiliar up to speed.

No Home Movie is an assemblage of "conversations" Akerman had with her mother, but the substance of those conversations is mostly banal, like morning chit-chat over breakfast potatoes or a couple of Skype sessions where Natalia struggles to keep her face in the frame. They do share one meaningful discussion where Natalia opens up about aging, Auschwitz, and lingering anti-Semitism, and it feels more natural and unprompted than a typical documentary interview. There's the sense that Akerman wasn't angling for her mother to open up about anything, but has the camera present for her when she does. She doesn't force the action, but observes it from a fixed position, collecting long takes that together express the contours of Natalia's life.

As the title suggests, No Home Movie is an act of avant-garde deconstruction as much a piece of portraiture. Most home movies don't cut away to landscapes and empty rooms or keep the camera rolling through banal action, and none are so mournful about the winding down of a special relationship. It's an exceptionally challenging and enigmatic work, especially for Akerman neophytes, but there's an intimacy to it that's occasionally startling. A long shot of Akerman filming Natalia napping on an easy chair, her breath labored, feels like a quiet memorial from daughter to mother. And now, both women are gone.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.