Many years from now, it may be possible to view I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman as purely an introduction to both Akerman’s filmmaking and her sensibilities as an artist. After all, Marianne Lambert’s film dually unfolds as both a profile of the filmmaker and as a highlight reel of Akerman’s filmography. For now, though, few will be able to see it without being acutely aware of Akerman’s recent death, which immediately grants scenes of her speaking and reflecting on her life as a “nomad” an added degree of poignancy. Lambert shot most of the footage in late 2014, as Akerman was in the process of editing No Home Movie, but I Don’t Belong Anywhere unfolds less as an extended making-of featurette than an attempt to capture something of Akerman’s infectious spirit and thirst for worldly experience, as both an artist and a human being.
Lambert wisely begins the film with Akerman herself, sitting on her bed and reflecting on “how many times I’ve moved.” Akerman explains her move to New York City from Brussels at the age of 21 and how she worked in a “gay porn theater” to fund her first film. These more idiosyncratic biographical details give way to larger revelations, with Akerman detailing how she recently realized that her mother has been at the heart of all of her work. Lambert lets Akerman guide the film’s through line, so that when she speaks of her 1972 short La Chambre, a clip promptly appears on screen. Lambert follows this pattern throughout, which integrates glimpses of Akerman’s films as if they were natural extensions of the artist.
That fluidity has one peculiar interruption, as when Gus Van Sant appears as a talking head to explain how Jeanne Dielman had a significant influence on Last Days. It’s the only passage where Lambert breaks from a more concealed presentation purely from within Akerman’s filmmaking world. While Van Sant passionately states his appreciation, it feels out of place and too conventional a gesture for a film that otherwise avoids offering plaudits to Akerman’s films.
Not to say that other subjects aren’t integrated. In an especially effective segment, Aurore Clément, the star of Akerman’s The Meetings of Anna, speaks about Akerman’s autobiographical dimensions and how the character she played in the film was modeled after Akerman’s own experiences as a female filmmaker. Clément also explains seeing the film at a festival and being shocked when it was booed. The story can’t help but resonate with reports that Akerman’s No Home Movie was likewise jeered during its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in 2015. Of the incident, Clément defers outright criticism of audiences, but implies her disbelief at short-sighted spectators who would be so hostile and dismissive of films that “were anything but easy.”
Other fascinating talking points abound throughout, most notably Akerman’s claim that she never wanted to show her films at “gay, women, or Jewish” film festivals, but at larger festivals that offered no such pigeonholing of the films being shown. It’s in a moment like this that one wishes Lambert could intervene and ask a follow-up question, since Akerman is rather vague on this point. Nevertheless, it’s perhaps fitting that Akerman’s claims go without clarification or rebuttal, since the film’s very premise is Akerman’s unwieldy status as an artist who refuses to and, more to the point, cannot be explained in any singular manner. I Don’t Belong Anywhere always gives Akerman the final word and, in almost every case, it’s to all of our collective benefit.