Intimacy and Distance in Chantal Akerman

in 68th Film Festival Locarno

by Raphaële Bouchet

Among the many acclaimed filmmakers selected for the international competition at the 68th Locarno Festival, all had at least one thing in common: they offered the cinéphile audience the pleasure of re-tasting familiar flavors. The delectable romantic mishaps of Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then), the burlesque poetry of Otar Iosseliani (Chant d’Hiver) or the hysterical vitality of Andrzej Zulawski (Cosmos) may have seduced or irritated viewers, but they would not have come as a complete surprise, since viewers were in known territory.              

Home ground, or rather, territory, is at stake in No Home Movie, by the similarly acclaimed Belgian director Chantal Akerman. But this film offers barren territory from the very start, to the point of sometimes being off-putting. With the first long static shot of a tree in the middle of the desert, and the incessant sound of wind blowing, the film seems to want to drive off as many viewers as possible. It almost comes across as a defense system to prevent anyone from penetrating the intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship. 

Akerman previously referenced her mother in News From Home (1977), a film in which she read, in voiceover, letters which her mother had sent her from Belgium while she was in New York. This time the filmmaker recounts another kind of maternal absence – that of the final stage of life, when the spirit is soon to depart and the body prepares to follow it. Akerman films the arid landscapes and her mother’s apartment with the same unflagging patience. This territory, whether deserted or inhabited, seems to contain its share of secrets. Both the dead tree and the ornaments in her mother’s room know everything, but even when filmed at length, they will not surrender a word.                

This is a far cry from any conventional tear-jerking revelation – which the mother refuses to countenance in any case. From time to time, mother and daughter talk. But the filmmaker soon hits barriers. No, her mother does not want to confide in her, she will remain obstinately silent about the past. Akerman travels, returning to visit her mother at home intermittently. From the other side of the world, she calls via Skype and films their conversation.                    

“Why are you making this film?” asks the elderly woman. Akerman: “Because I want to show there are no distances left in the world.” Later the mother reiterates the question, and the daughter hardly changes her response: “Because I want to show what a small world it is.” Yet the whole film tends to demonstrate the impossibility of overcoming the distance between two people, however intense the love that connects them. This distance is conveyed in images; there is always a frame which distances mother from daughter, whether a doorway or a computer screen. The camera observes everything, but from a distance; it is casually placed on a piece of furniture in an adjoining room to record, with infinite tact, the mother’s last words and gestures.                    

No Home Movie is a film about the unsayable: the secrets carried over into death and the life which is departing that the film tries, in vain, to hold onto. Those who keep watching to the very last shot may emerge with the feeling that this magnificently slow, profoundly affecting film was conceived, written and made for them. And for them alone.            

Edited by Lesley Chow