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In a scene in No Home Movie (2015), the last film from the celebrated film director Chantal Akerman, which is a documentary of her elderly mother’s daily life as she recovers from an operation, Akerman says while they are eating dinner: “In Judaism a child doesn’t have to love his parents, but he does have to respect them. Which is a very good idea!” she adds, waving her knife in the air. Her mother, Natalia, laughs.
Her mother laughs often, Akerman recalls in her memoir, in which the present day seems to be about a year before the film was made. “Often she laughs in the middle of her moans.” “I listen to her laugh,” Akerman writes. “She laughs over nothing. But this nothing means a lot. She even laughs in the morning sometimes … I like the sound her laugh makes. She sleeps a lot, but she laughs. She enjoys herself. Then she sleeps.”
She laughs and then she’s seized with emotion, “grabbing” her daughter’s “face and kissing it with an intensity” that makes her turn away. Akerman laughs along because, she writes, otherwise “this blanket sentimentality threatens to overwhelm us as we don’t know what to do with it, it’s too heavy”.
Akerman struggles with the duties of a daughter. In this sense My Mother Laughs shares DNA with Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death, or Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary. But it is much more quotidian than either of those predecessors. You never tell me anything about your life, Natalia complains. You already said twice that you want fromage blanc, the daughter gripes. Akerman’s subject is a relationship that is so fraught with love and respect that it can overspill into frustration and intolerance even as she reminds herself of the precariousness of her mother’s health, to jolt herself into behaving better towards her.
The book reads like a “sneeze”, says Eileen Myles, who provides a preface to the Silver edition. I would say that it’s more like a sneeze that never arrives, the sort that lingers, unbearably feathering your sinuses, until it clears. Akerman says she experiences the same kind of frustration in writing; it is never the catharsis she wants it to be; she is never happy with the results. “I read through everything I wrote and I feel very disappointed. But what can I do. I wrote it. It’s there.”
Jotted down in her mother’s apartment in Brussels, the book is saturated with the intimate space of the home, with overproximity to its subject. Natalia nearly dies once during the course of it, and, we are meant to understand, though it’s never spelled out, she is no longer alive by the time we are reading it. Neither, for that matter, is its author. Akerman suffered from depression, and a year after her mother’s death, she took her own life. This knowledge hangs over the book. Indeed, many will read it for clues to understand that final decision. She describes herself as an “old child”, someone who was “born old” and “never became an adult”, who, “if their mother ever died they’d have nowhere left to go”. Perhaps then, she writes, she would give herself permission to die as well.
But we must guard against using the book as an elaborate suicide note: it is a work of art as carefully crafted as one of Akerman’s films. The account is sensitively rendered into English by Daniella Shreir (editor of the feminist film magazine Another Gaze), who was eager to preserve the “rebelliousness” of the book’s experimental form. Episodes from the past recur; there are tricky twists and turns of perspective; the voice echoes Gertrude Stein in its simplicity, its repetitions, its sparse punctuation, its line breaks. There are photographs scattered throughout, taken both from the family photo album and from Akerman’s films, each a composition in itself.
Her films often seem to be a series of living photographs. No Home Movie shows Natalia mostly in moments of stillness, and often through a half-open doorway, as she sits in her favourite armchair, or at the dining room table. As is typical of Akerman’s formally challenging films, the shots are static, and prolonged, an accumulation of time, space and whatever we, the viewers, are projecting on to the scene. We see the director herself in glimpses through half-opened doors, acting indeed like an “old child”, scooping pickles out of a jar, asking to be told a story, slipping off an ottoman. She famously liked to put her camera at her own height, rather than the standard height established by male film-makers. But in No Home Movie, the camera is established at doorknob height – child height. We regularly see nothing higher up than people’s torsos.
Tell me a story, maman. Her mother, both in the film and the book, has anecdotes, but withholds the most important stories – the ones that would communicate the truth of her experience in Auschwitz, where the rest of her family died. Perhaps this is why there are so many prolonged silences in her daughter’s films. The laugh, too, is a cover; perhaps it is another kind of silence.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk.
• My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman is published by Silver Press (£13.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian
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