The late Chantal Akerman had a unique way of filming a room. She would place the camera below eye level, with the lens flatly parallel to a wall, forming a box of perspective that seemed to enclose characters (usually women) within their surroundings. There’s a remarkable shot in her 1978 film Les Rendez-vous D’Anna in which the title character, something of an Akerman stand-in, walks the length of her hotel room. She pulls sheer curtains down a drapery track, uncovering window after window, her movement paralleled by the smoothly tracking camera and by a train departing in the industrial cityscape that is her view. She stops at one window, opens the double casement, and stands there for about 15 seconds before closing it again, one pane at a time. The sequence is bleak and mesmerizing (both common descriptors for Akerman’s debut feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) and weighted with phantom meaning.
Akerman had a gift for making rooms and everyday routines seem like they meant something. Jeanne Dielman, a 201-minute character study of a Belgian single mother who moonlights as a prostitute, is a challenging movie, but it isn’t hard to “get.” Its carefully regulated style is self-explanatory; it cements the audience in the space and time of routines, so that they begin to see subtleties as significant. One wishes that the same could be said of Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, a documentary about the filmmaker’s relationship to her mother, Nelly. Akerman’s suicide, which came as a shock last October, gives morbid gravitas to the project, especially since it deals with mortality, often indirectly. But though No Home Movie is a very personal work by someone who was always a deeply personal artist, it’s hard to tune into. It contains a lot of Akerman, but very little of her art, and that seems intentional; the low-grade video is haphazardly composed, with the camera sometimes plopped down on a table or a counter.
It is the kind of movie where a viewer can find themselves feeling a tinge of guilt for not being more compelled. Contrary to the title, it’s very much a home movie, full of the kind of nothing that can bring back powerful memories, but only for those who already have them. There’s no question that Akerman’s relationship with her mother, who died in 2014, was a major source of creative inspiration and conflict in her work. It’s all over her best early films, be it the evocative News From Home, a portrait of New York City narrated through the letters Nelly wrote while her daughter was living there, or the groundbreaking Jeanne Dielman. Those who’ve seen the latter film will experience a disquieting déjà vu the first time Akerman brings the camera into the tea-green tile walls of her mother’s kitchen. This room, and everything it represents, seems to have haunted her life’s work, beginning with her first short, Saute Ma Ville, which captures the teenage Akerman going through a frenzied parody of housewifedom before dying in a gas explosion.
There is an element of drama that an audience very familiar with Akerman’s work (which, admittedly, is most of the people who will seek out No Home Movie) can’t help but project on to the pointedly non-eventful footage, which consist in large part of Nelly puttering around her Brussels apartment and conversations over Skype, shot from the point-of-view of Akerman’s handheld camera. Perhaps the film—which touches on the unexamined and the struggle to communicate—is intentionally defective; it is intimate, but not candid, as though the relationship between the filmmaker and her Holocaust survivor mother were something that could be translated visually (and then, not very well), but not emotionally. But it has the bad luck of being released (via the streaming service Fandor) on the same week as a very conceptually similar personal documentary by another queer filmmaker with a minimalist visual style.
Tsai Ming-Liang’s Afternoon (The A.V. Club review to come) is even more uncompromising than No Home Movie, and features an even less forthcoming subject than Nelly Akerman, and yet, as a portrait of a relationship that has trouble putting itself into words, it is often moving and very candid. Perhaps personal material needs a filter, which comes in the form of Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema Of Chantal Akerman, which is beginning a theatrical run this week. Shot while Akerman was editing No Home Movie, this brief and effective primer on Akerman’s work (“I think the word ‘career’ is inappropriate for my life,” she says at the beginning) doubles as a profile of the outspoken, animated filmmaker.
Puffing American Spirits out the window in between questions, the raspy-voiced Akerman seems more present in I Don’t Belong Anywhere than she does in her own last film. Her reflections on her mother’s death and influence are more cogent than anything in No Home Movie, as are her regrets and self-assessments, occasionally expounded on by interviews with collaborators and fans. Gus Van Sant, for instance, gets a small corner of the movie to himself to recount how he and cinematographer Harris Savides studied Akerman in preparation for Last Days, turning a behind-the-scenes story about one director’s movie into a discussion of another director’s style. Here, Akerman discusses both her celebrated successes and forgotten failures (e.g., A Couch In New York, her one attempt at a convention); ironic, given what a deeply personal filmmaker she could be, that the film that best shows her brilliant intellect and insight isn’t her own.