Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie” is not, as its enigmatic title might suggest, a deconstruction of or attack on the home-movie tradition — that amateur pastime of documenting private family moments for posterity’s sake. If anything, the avant-garde Belgian director’s tribute to her mother, Natalia, a Polish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor who died in 2014, appears to fully embrace the format, with its power to preserve the past and sentimentalize mundane moments. Ergo, to comprehend the title is to acknowledge that Akerman — a self-described nomad who travels light and moves often — no longer feels any connection to Brussels, now that her mother has passed. In its own highbrow way, the formally demanding and impossibly intimate video essay serves as an elegy to that sense of home that disappeared with the woman who, as far as the film is concerned, seems forever confined to her own bourgeois apartment.
“My mother is the center of my oeuvre,” Akerman confides to fellow Belgian director Marianne Lambert in “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman,” a career-spanning documentary that screened two days before “No Home Movie’s” world premiere at the Locarno film festival. For those uninitiated with Akerman’s work, that primer provides valuable insights into her latest — and, some might say, most radical — feature. As titles go, “I Don’t Belong Anywhere” further reinforces the notion that the director feels more disconnected than ever from her roots — from that same faraway “home” which supplied the banal drone of letters heard in “News From Home” (1977) while Akerman was otherwise living abroad in New York.
And so, on at least one level, “No Home Movie” marks an attempt by the director to come to terms with those roots, as well as to reconcile her relationship with the woman whose domestic apathy (that decidedly un-feminist — and by extension, anti-heroic — acquiescence to a life of indoor subservience) supplied the impetus for such contemptuous early films as kitchen-immolating “Saute ma ville” and her now-legendary 201-minute study of a housewife, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” Once again, for minutes on end, Akerman’s virtual eye (mostly a relatively low-res DV camera, though she also captures images via Skype and her built-in Blackberry apparatus) observes the quiet routine of an invisible woman — only this time, the housewife is, of course, her mother.
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As in Jean-Luc Godard’s recent “Goodbye to Language,” the use of consumer-grade digital cameras yields footage with a texture that feels perceptibly different from that of celluloid. This aesthetic choice, though perhaps less appealing or “professional”-looking to general audiences, can hardly be considered accidental: Akerman knows the subliminal connotations that video produces in our minds, aware that we perceive such material as private. Indeed, at times, the imagery feels so personal, we can scarcely comprehend what we are watching. This is potentially the case for various desert landscapes woven throughout the film. What significance do these countrysides (including the four-minute opening shot, recorded in Israel but never identified as such) have for her? For her mother? For us?
Another director might strive to avoid such ambiguities at all costs, but not Akerman, who resists the obvious solution to provide context by recording voiceover that might run from one end of the 110-minute film to the other. Instead, nearly half an hour goes by before a meaningful phrase is spoken. Finally, Natalia (or “maman” to her daughter) mumbles something about how to cook potatoes, with or without skins — a conversation that can’t help but evoke Jeanne Dielman’s potato-peeling ritual, tedious to some, but of such enormous import to her. Later, Akerman and her mother will go deeper, delving into such painful topics as aging, the war and anti-Semitism. Akerman knows her mother won’t live forever (as in a classic Hollywood melodrama whose heroine dies of consumption, a recurring cough forebodes the heroine’s imminent demise), and the filmmaker seems determined to capture what she can — and by extension, to immortalize her.
Countless directors have paid cinematic tribute to their mothers over the years. Some, such as Jean-Jacques Zilbermann (“Irene and Her Sisters”), even honored the memory of their parents’ Holocaust experience. Akerman could have found a more flattering way to film her mother, as opposed to, say, zooming in on a muddy Skype conversation until the image dissolves into an abstract moire of pixels. Instead, she tends to set her camera on tabletops around her mom’s apartment and then walk away from — or sometimes directly into — the shot, the lens fixed at the eye level of a young girl (herself?), spying from the edge of the room. Frequently, the footage is grubby, blown out or too dark to make out much of anything.
Make no mistake: Watching “No Home Movie” will be a taxing experience for all but the most patient cineastes. (It was booed by some at its press screening in Locarno, where critics fully expect the lineup to test their limits.) Akerman and longtime editor Claire Atherton allow shots to unspool for minutes on end, often with no faces or bodies onscreen to catch our interest. In such moments, the spaces seem as significant as their inhabitants, those domestic routines so often chronicled in Akerman’s other films unfolding out-of-frame. For her, the timing is precisely right, though it might have been interesting to embrace the format just a bit more, letting each shot run from the moment she pressed “record” till she hit “stop,” spliced together one after the other as they might appear on an actual home movie.