This weekend, the Gene Siskel Film Center, as part of the generally excellent programming at the Chicago European Union Film Festival, screened I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman on a double bill with the Belgian director’s final film before her unexpected death last year, No Home Movie. Akerman was one of cinema’s most vital figures, balancing an outsider’s perspective on narrative filmmaking with a deep commitment to experimental techniques. Losing her was a profound loss to the art form, and the twin punch of these two films illustrate just how profound it was.
I Don’t Belong Anywhere, directed by Marianne Lambert, isn’t a particularly groundbreaking documentary. It’s largely talking heads, interspersed with footage from Akerman’s movies, most of which her fans will have already seen — and as much as the wider world deserves to be exposed to the work of this amazing director, it’s hard to discern exactly who, other than fans, would be the audience for it. This question also haunts the choice of interview subjects; it’s perfectly natural that we hear a lot from Akerman’s longtime film editor, Claire Atherton, but the presence of Gus Van Sant is harder to explain. I believe him when he says he’s a fan of Akerman’s, and that his Last Days (of which we see far too many clips) was influenced by her work; I’m just strained to guess why I should care. Van Sant isn’t a big enough name or Last Days a big enough movie for this to draw in those unfamiliar with Akerman’s, and those who are probably won’t care what he has to say.
The documentary is far stronger when it allows Akerman, who sits for a very extensive series of interviews, to talk about her process. As she travels from one temporary home to another, she talks about the artificiality of the distinction between narrative and documentary film; noting that the very act of framing robs a documentary of its factual basis, she shows how even the intensely structured static shots of her films are made through careful arrangement of what seems like a totally natural environment. Addressing the often glacial pace of her works — so essential to understanding it, but so frustrating for those accustomed to the lightning cuts of flashier filmmakers — she says that montage has made great films seem to us as if we completely lose track of time while we are watching them, while her purpose has always been to make us feel the passage of time. Hearing her discuss with Atherton the critical importance of making a shot of the deserts of Israel last just long enough to make the abrupt cut to a man idling in a green, lush park all the more powerful, you get more of a sense of what she’s about than in any academic treatment.
That shot is at the very beginning of No Home Movie, Akerman’s final film and a much more effective testament to her brilliance than I Don’t Belong Anywhere. It largely concerns Akerman’s relationship with her aging mother Natalia, a Polish Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust. Akerman’s work has always lived under the influence of her mother, and at one point in the documentary she expresses a surprising regret for having targeted the women of that generation and the crushing routines under which they labored in her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, Bruxelles 1080. Natalia and Chantal love one another greatly, but they have a difficult relationship complicated by the former’s reticence to discuss the traumas she experienced in life and the latter’s equal determination to draw it out of her — a dynamic familiar to anyone of an artistic bent who has tried, for whatever reason, to mine the family tragedy for material.
Just as in the documentary, the title of No Home Movie cuts both ways. Akerman was an eternal nomad, both literally and metaphorically: she constantly moved from place to place, going from Brussels to Paris to New York to Berlin to Israel and everywhere else that would accept her in order to pursue her artistic visions. And, similarly, she was never at home in any one type of filmmaking, hopping from narrative to documentary to experimental and even into the world of video installation in her restlessness to frame the world with her brilliant eye. (She even indulged in mainstream romantic comedy; I Don’t Belong Anywhere‘s funniest moment comes when, discussing the atypical A Couch in New York, she talks about butting heads with William Hurt.) She is forever talking with her mother about when she will pause her wandering routine and see her again; one of the film’s great ironies comes in the way she films the Skype chats they have, explicitly stating how there is no such thing as distance anymore, a point heartbreakingly undercut by the long empty shots of the Israeli desert when she travels back to bury Natalia, stark and silent and only broken by the howling of the wind, but certainly evidence that distance is always with us.
The odd thing about watching the two films together is the way they both address and fail to address Akerman’s own death only a few months later. I Don’t Belong Anywhere was completed before No Home Movie was finished, and we see footage of the latter being assembled by her and Atherton; the film itself wrapped after Natalia’s death and was being shown on the festival circuit — specifically, at Cannes — when Akerman took her own life. Seeing her in both films, it is both impossible to imagine her as a suicide (she seems incredibly lively, animated, and engaged) and possible to see plenty of warning signs. She speaks of depression and alienation, she is without a home both physically and culturally, and her involvement with her mother is so deep and profound — at one point, she comes right out and says all of her work has been, at some level, an attempt to engage with Natalia, and she cannot imagine making more without her — that it is no surprise at all. And both films, without any true knowledge that they were adding a final punctuation to Akerman’s incredible career, provide us with unshakeable visual predictions of what to come: I Don’t Belong Anywhere closes with Akerman walking down a remote highway in Israel, unable to resist an occasional peek back at the camera following her, and No Home Movie ends with Natalia’s apartment, now empty and uninhabited, no home at all, with the only sound that of Akerman fumbling around the camera. That sound will no longer be heard, and we’re all the poorer for it.