About halfway through “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman,” a new documentary by Marianne Lambert, opening on Wednesday, March 30, the late Belgian filmmaker tells Lambert that, finally, all her films are really about her mother, a Holocaust survivor who died shortly before the interview took place.
Reflecting on the loss of her maternal muse, Akerman says with an odd half-smile, “Now I’m afraid.”
If one learns nothing else from “I Don’t Belong,” the film makes it abundantly clear that Akerman possessed impressive self-knowledge; Akerman committed suicide in October 2015.
Of course, that fact colors how one feels about Lambert’s film, which is a quick brushstroke review of Akerman’s career, featuring clips from many of her films, including her seminal 1975 film “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” and two more recent works that will have their New York premieres in April, “La-bas (Down There)” and her final work, “No Home Movie.”
What quickly becomes apparent from the documentary is that as much as her mother is the center of her cinematic universe, the Shoah and its aftermath are the recurring lament underlying it. Perched atop some rusting military construction materials in the Negev, Akerman speaks with disarming candor about that fact, saying that in the aftermath of the camps, “there are some things that can’t be shown,” a position that she readily acknowledges colors her oeuvre. The position even indirectly imposes the rhythms of repetition and quotidian detail that distinguish “Jeanne Dielman,” and inflects other films like “Almayer’s Folly” in ways that Lambert’s choice of clips reveals with admirable restraint.
What makes all of this so painful is that the woman at the center of “I Don’t Belong” is witty, charming and sagacious, a delightful raconteur who clearly was hiding the shadows of family trauma all the time that she was making films.
Ultimately it’s the films that will be Akerman’s best defense, and this spring will be a suitable monument to her, with Lambert’s film and “Jeanne Dielman” on display at Film Forum, an admirably complete retrospective of her work at BAMCinémathek, including the theatrical premiere of her final film, “No Home Movie,” and the theatrical run of her 2006 film “La-Bàs (Down There)” at Anthology Film Archives (in tandem with another week-long run of “No Home Movie”).
A loving portrait of her mother, “No Home Movie” is probably not the best film with which to introduce someone to Akerman’s filmography. The film is frustrating by design with its deliberate focus on emptiness of all kinds, and parsimonious with the kind of information that might explain its obsessive quality. At the same time, it is impossible to watch the film without one’s reactions being colored by Akerman’s subsequent act. There are moments of great power and satisfaction, and the affection Akerman felt for her mother is communicated throughout. But one flinches when the filmmaker tells her mother of her good mood and adds, “Let’s enjoy it, it’s not that common.”
Not surprisingly, when the subject of the camps does come up, usually rather obliquely, in “No Home Movie,” it is discussed sparingly, as matter-of-factly as the mother-daughter conversation about the decision to cook the potatoes without their skins. There are also glancing references to her father’s decision to break with the family’s Orthodox past when his own father died, including his abruptly pulling Chantal out of the Jewish day school where she was excelling. (That decision was punctuated by his memorably cutting remark, “If you’re top of the class, it can’t be much of a school.”)
Perhaps my view of “No Home Movie” is colored by its proximity to Akerman’s death. By contrast, “La-Bàs” seems to me the film that the later work wanted to be. The title, roughly translated as “Down There,” refers to Israel, and the film is set entirely in Tel Aviv, although we see almost nothing of the city except for the apartments visible from Akerman’s window and the beach.
On some level, typical of her most rigorously formal work, “La-Bàs” is about the sharp contrast between interior and exterior spaces, defined by the opposition of the city’s almost blindingly bright sunlight and the deep shadows cast by Akerman’s perpetually drawn window shades. We never see Akerman (except for a shot in which the top and back of her head are visible), or meet the neighbors who are visible through the curtains. But we hear her phone conversations with her mother and listen to her reflections on her family’s painful intersections with Jewish history, leading to her aunt’s suicide, and we hear her typing at the computer.
Everything seems normal but, as she asserts, “Nothing is normal.” She is living a few blocks from a terrorist bombing and says, “It puts things in perspective. What perspective? Then the sorrow returns.”
“La-Bàs” is a difficult film. Despite moments of great wit and warmth, the movie makes demands on a viewer that many will not want to take on. But it is a rewarding, if austere work, one that is a painful reminder of what we lost last October.
“I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman” will have its New York premiere at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) Wednesday, March 30, along with a short film about Akerman by Vivian Ostrovsky; thanks to a grant from the Ostrovsky Family Fund, admission to all showings will be free of charge. Additionally, Film Forum will be showing a new restoration print of “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” beginning on April 1. For more information, go to filmforum.org.
BAMcinématek presents “Chantal Akerman: Images Between the Images,” April 1-May 1. The program, a comprehensive retrospective of her work, opens with a two-week run of “No Home Movie.” BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn), bam.org.
Anthology Film Archives will host the theatrical premiere of Akerman’s 2006 film, “La-Bàs (Down There),” which will run in tandem with “No Home Movie” April 15-21. Anthology Film Archives (Second Avenue and Second Street), http://anthologyfilmarchives.org.