Belgian lesbian director Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie,” which depicts her mother’s final days, would be an extremely sad film under any circumstances. However, it must play very differently in the wake of Akerman’s suicide last fall than it did for audiences who caught its initial film festival screenings in 2015.
It seems to have taken Akerman’s death for her work to get its due in New York. There have already been several one-off screenings of her films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this year. The two-week run of “No Home Movie” at BAM kicks off “Images Between the Images,” a month-long retrospective of her 40 films. Film Forum’s presentation of Marianne Lambert’s “I Don’t Belong Anywhere,” a documentary about Akerman, is accompanied by a weeklong re-release of her 1975 classic “Jeanne Dielman.” On April 15, Anthology Film Archives will continue the run of “No Home Movie” for another week, playing it with her rare 2006 Israeli-made film “La-Bas.”
“I Don’t Belong Anywhere” emphasizes Akerman’s resistance to identity politics and refusal to be categorized. In the film, she reiterates her refusal to have her work screened at feminist or LGBT festivals. Yet she kicked off her career by outing herself explicitly. Just when it seems like “I Don’t Belong Anywhere” is evading the issue of her sexuality, it shows a clip from her 1974 debut feature, “Je tu il elle,” in which the director has real sex with another woman.
The films of Chantal Akerman win broad New York exposure in April
In “I Don’t Belong Anywhere,” Akerman reveals that her mother and many women of her generation took “Jeanne Dielman” and its second-wave feminist equation of housework (done in the service of men) and prostitution as an insult. “No Home Movie” is the ultimate mea culpa. Here, Akerman captures conversations with her mother both profound and trivial. She doesn’t offer much context, and seems to dart in and out of her mother’s life. “No Home Movie” was obviously filmed on and off over the course of several years, as Akerman taught at Columbia and periodically came home to Brussels, but the chronology isn’t clear. It grows darker, both visually and tonally, in its second half as her mother’s health worsens.
“No Home Movie” features slightly distorted colors, which are probably the result of shooting in natural light with cheap video cameras. Most of the time, Akerman left her camera on a tripod for carefully framed extended takes. If the film has a clear precursor, it’s her fellow suicide victim Jean Eustache’s 1971 “Numéro Zéro,” a feature-length interview with his grandmother. But Akerman leaves far more empty space than Eustache did.
“I Don’t Belong Anywhere” fills in many of the mysteries of Akerman’s work, including the influence of the Holocaust on her films and life (which also comes up in “No Home Movie,” as her mother was a concentration camp survivor), but it doesn’t quite do justice to her entire filmography. No feature-length documentary could, although Akerman’s own “Akerman by Akerman” comes close. Unlike equally talented female filmmakers like Elaine May and Vera Chytilová, Akerman was apparently able to work without the commercial and political hurdles they faced. “I Don’t Belong Anywhere” devotes a surprising amount of attention to her misfired attempt at making a “mainstream” film, “A Couch in New York.” Akerman describes what a pain it was to direct William Hurt. Despite the casting of an American star and a rom-com plot, “A Couch in New York” proved to be far less commercial than “Jeanne Dielman” — a 210-minute film in which a woman peels a potato in real time — in the long run.
Akerman fills “No Home Movie” with images of desolate nature: desert landscapes and trees, mostly devoid of leaves, flapping in the wind. (The sound design captures the wind’s oppressiveness particularly well.) These scenes seem intended to speak for her grief over her mother’s loss — they’re another version of the empty spaces in her mother’s Brussels apartment. The final image of “No Home Movie” is particularly horrifying now because it perfectly expresses that void. Akerman could see it and she could give voice to her recognition of it, but she succumbed to it anyway.
NO HOME MOVIE | Directed by Chantal Akerman | Icarus Films | In French with English subtitles | Apr. 1-14 | BAM Rose Cinemas, Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Pl. | bam.org
I DON’T BELONG ANYWHERE | Directed by Marianne Lambert | Icarus Films | In English and French with English subtitles | Through Apr. 5 | Film Forum, 209 Houston St. | Screenings are free | filmforum.org