Alex Heeney reviews Chantal Akerman’s moving cinematic essay: a tribute to her mother, a holocaust survivor, and a subtle exploration of Jewish “suitcase-ready” culture.
Two minutes into the first Skype conversation between Chantal Akerman and her mother “Maman” in No Home Movie, I was a goner. Maman lights up at the sight of her daughter’s face and the sound of her daughter’s voice. It’s clear from every smile, every gesture, that there’s great love and warmth between them. I’ve never seen love expressed so purely on camera.
The scene is a change of pace from the film’s opening, which is alienating and even trying: four nonstop minutes of watching a fragile tree blowing in the wind. It may be a bit overkill as a symbol for resilience, but Akerman is teaching us patience. Most of the film’s images take time to find resonance. Eventually, they devastate.
The film is mostly set inside Maman’s large and empty Brussels apartment. Maman has accumulated many possessions, but there are few people in her life. Maman’s only surviving relatives are her two daughters and some cousins in the United States. When Akerman shoots the apartment’s empty rooms and hallways, occasionally with Maman in frame, small and near the back, we feel the absence of family.
For Akerman, her mother’s apartment is a home base, a regular and comforting stop on her travels. Though Maman is always enthusiastic to see her daughter, she has started to slow down, growing increasingly frail with age. The spectre of an empty apartment looms in the film. The space will be devoid of meaning, no longer a “home”, when Maman is gone.
As a Jew, Akerman’s feeling of homelessness is magnified because of the diaspora and the constant threat of persecution: as Simon Schama puts it, it’s a “suitcase ready” culture. For thousands of years, Jews were persecuted, treated as foreigners or second class citizens wherever they settled. It’s not just that Maman’s apartment will lose its warmth once she passes, but that Maman’s death will leave Chantal unmoored, without further ties to her family and past.