Chantal Akerman’s latest film No Home Movie (2015) opens on a shot of a tree being buffeted by the wind with a barren expanse of Israeli desert stretching into the distance. The composition lasts for several minutes and is the first of five such asides dotted throughout this intimate portrait of the director’s ageing mother, Natalia, who passed away in 2014. Their meaning remains ambiguous, though the film’s title may perhaps suggest their inclusion is intended to illustrate some tangential link between Akerman’s own emotional distance from her mother’s Brussels apartment, and her mother’s spiritual one from Israeli – as a Polish Jew largely lapsed after the family’s flight to Belgium in 1938.
That this may sound like reaching for meaning is something of an indicator of the reticence Akerman shows in overtly articulating her intentions with No Home Movie. Despite the title, this 110 minute picture is essentially what it claims not to be – it’s even shot on grainy DV which accentuates the very effect, reminding us of the private nature of the images we are privy to. “We say you don’t have to love your parents, but respect them,” Akerman says at one point, but her affection for her mother is evident in every frame and perhaps this is purpose enough. Natalia has certainly been an important element in her prior work; the murmured narration of News From Home (1977) was constructed from her letters and there are clear parallels to be drawn with Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
It’s actually some time before there is any real dialogue in No Home Movie and the first exchange, between Natalia and Chantal concerning potatoes, can’t help but recall the dinner table banalities of Jeanne and Sylvain. There are long takes in which nothing visibly happens, though Natalia can be heard shuffling about her apartment off scree. Akerman often aims her camera at the windows, glimpsing the outside world through the net curtains that her mother sees it through. Though there is ample mention of outdoor sojourns, Akerman’s film only observes Natalia’s existence within the confines of her bourgeois Brussels apartment. “She’s never really talked to me,” Natalia laments at one point, once her health has begun to deteriorate. She’s told that Chantal never stops talking, but counters that it’s never about anything important. It’s an interesting accusation to come towards the end of a film that seems to never have really said any of the things it vaguely nods towards. Family history and the persecution of Jews in Poland and Belgium are briefly touched upon in another dinner table chat, likewise Natalia’s memories of her parents and husband. But instead, Akerman keeps her camera sat at a distance, rested on a sideboard, observing mundanity. It’s impossible not to be sucked into, but it’s equally impossible not to imagine how much more significant No Home Movie might have been.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.