If Chantal Akerman’s politics and aesthetics are devoted to a “historiography and theory of women in the home,” as Jayne Loader says in a 1977 Jump Cut piece on Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, then No Home Movie, Akerman’s stridently unsentimental love letter to Natalia, her recently deceased mother, necessarily unfolds as the culmination of those efforts. Taking a fragmented approach to portraiture, the filmmaker trains her camera on Natalia as she moves about her Belgian home, whether trekking from the living room to the kitchen, eating meals, or Skyping with Akerman while she’s away. The film is a deliberate companion piece to News from Home, Akerman’s 1977 documentary featuring letters from her mother, but takes an opposing approach. Instead of pairing words with images, Akerman often rests her camera in Natalia’s abode, but without urgency to record epitomizing moments or even conventionally meaningful revelations. Natalia is simply present, at times humming a small tune, but generally oblivious to being filmed. Loader also refers to Akerman’s work as “death in installments,” a not inappropriate description of her latest; almost episodically structured, it chronicles Natalia’s gradual deterioration and eventual off-screen death.
No Home Movie begins not inside Natalia’s home, but in a nondescript desert, with wind fiercely blowing a single, deteriorating tree. Its ferocious strength and visible force resound as if pulling whatever lies within its path into an inescapable vortex. It’s the film’s loudest moment, sonically and figuratively, as the tree, the emblem of fortitude Natalia embodies due to her enduring life in Brussels as both an Auschwitz survivor and Polish immigrant, bends but doesn’t break. While this could be a trite metaphor in less capable hands, Akerman turns an initial instance of isolation into a visual leitmotif, where subsequent iterations of singular personages, whether a man on a bench or a lawn chair in the backyard, serve as functional equivalents for Natalia’s disintegrating self. By refusing to finitely define Natalia, or reduce her life to a series of biographical details, Akerman elides eulogizing of any sort, dignifying Natalia without personifying her as an idea made flesh.
Akerman shares several scenes with Natalia, often in her mother’s kitchen, often over a meal or conversation. The filmmaker prompts several discussions, including Natalia’s recollections of her own parents, studying Hebrew prayers, and Akerman’s being pulled out of Hebrew school by her father, who wanted to “break free” from orthodoxy. Their talks persistently veer toward religion and ideology; during one dinner, Akerman explains how her father was “a bit of a socialist,” and debates with her mother the leanings of those in power during World War II, which forced the family’s immigration to Sweden. The camera lingers behind them, presumably stationary on a table, perhaps without even the assistance of an operator. In turn, there’s a perpetual sense of being removed from Akerman’s directorial hand, as if these moments simply came into being by accident.
However, as pieces of discussion increasingly revolve around ethnicity and political (in)decision, Akerman returns to the desert, only this time mobile, with her camera shooting from inside the window of a moving car. It’s clear how expertly each clip follows the next. The desire for movement away from a place, juxtaposed with stagnation, correlates to a rough estimate of the human condition, where either choice leads to death. Natalia dies and Akerman will too; though she never states any guilt or remorse for leaving Natalia to pursue her own artistic ends, there’s a gentle sense of melancholy in how ambition, by definition, forces divergence from loved ones.
While Skyping with Natalia from Oklahoma, Akerman says, “There’s no distance in the world.” But the technological gapping of a geographic bridge in No Home Movie isn’t enough to effect blissful harmony; Akerman’s nomadic career comprehensively grapples with an existential division between self and place, which remains no matter the mediated evolution. Innovation, then, unites the film with News from Home, where each work implicitly addresses its predominant mode of epochal communication. Both relay their own time, but also unfold with an eye toward time, itself, as the drama centers around a lack of temporal continuity—a consistently faulty and unreliable immediacy. Thus, No Home Movie isn’t a time capsule, nor an attempt to actually capture anything; rather, as its polymorphous title suggests, personal nostalgia must be rebuffed in favor of lingering within vacant spaces that might not outwardly appear vital or capable of inducing affect. For Akerman, there can be no home, there can be no movie, and there certainly cannot be a combination of the two, since it would constitute a flagrant disavowal of the catastrophic realities created by manmade transgression. And Natalia, a witness to such horrors at Auschwitz, silently carries them with her with in every lasting step and breath until death, in its silent but certain approach, permanently extinguishes those burdens.