Mother Lode: Chantal Akerman’s Maternal Portraiture

Mother Lode: Chantal Akerman’s Maternal Portraiture

When she was asked to profile a director for the long-running French docuseries Cinéma, de notre temps, Chantal Akerman wondered: what better subject than herself? The producers agreed, and the Belgian-born filmmaker was inspired to edit together from her existing work something new, a self-portrait by way of collage. The producers balked, insisting on something more traditional. Couldn’t she just talk about herself, reframe her work for the viewer? “That’s where the problems began,” Akerman says, in the opening of her 1996 episode, Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman.

By way of compromise, Akerman prefaces the episode’s extended, unnarrated montage of clips from her films—including Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles, Je tu il elle, Saute ma ville, and News from Home—with an extraordinary, fifteen-minute monologue. In a series of long takes, Akerman considers the folly of straight self-portraiture, the problem of monologuing about herself. Can a director speak the truth about her films? Can the artist explain her desire to create? Does her appearance—her body, her face, her silence and smiles—have anything to say about her work? She describes her relationship to identity as a sort of forever war, “an epic battle to break free of the endless repetition” of the same labels: woman, Jew, second-generation Holocaust survivor, feminist, lesbian, Chantal Akerman, celebrated filmmaker. How might she present herself, and her art, without subjecting both to the diminishments and distortions of portraiture?

Akerman muses and deflects, eventually burying herself in an allegory about the struggle of a Jew named Yankel to sell his only cow. Yankel suffers from a lack of marketing prowess. His cow is a cow is a cow—nothing more and maybe a tiny bit less. A better cow salesman shows him how it’s done, extolling the charms of Yankel’s skinny cow, and a buyer soon appears. Similarly disinclined to peddling herself—particularly her biography—Akerman wonders what truth the efforts of those who advocate on her behalf might hold. Connections drawn between her life and her art may be both too simple and valid enough. The digging up of old quotes in the service of this kind of salesmanship bores her, but not because they’re untrue. She mentions one in particular, a thing she once said: “I make movies because writing was too big a risk.”

Akerman reads her Cinéma, de notre temps preface from a script, shuffling pages and setting them down. The voice is searching, elusive, centripetal; a balance of willful enigma and searing direct address. In this the monologue makes plain the risk Akerman associates with writing: not of exposure but of getting in her own way, of failing to be true to the ambiguity that interests her most. In the late 1960s, as she was starting out, the language of cinema was proliferating, begetting hybrid forms. Inspired by the experimental, self-reflexive style of French New Wave auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Akerman found in those blended, outsider forms an apt vehicle not just for the stories she wished to tell but the ambiguous, refracted way she wanted to tell them. Akerman’s appearance in several of her early films highlights her interest in the tension between exposure and disguise, the author as performer. Her most personal work especially emphasizes the unique opportunity moviemaking affords an artist to hide in plain sight.

Much of that work involves the widening of Akerman’s lens to encompass both herself and her mother, Nelly. “I simply told a story that interested me,” Akerman said in 1975 of Jeanne Dielman, the breakout portrait of domestic, maternal annihilation she completed at age twenty-five. Her mother was first among the women whose rituals, confinement, and silence had fascinated and bedeviled the director growing up. “If they sought to forget a past about which they had nothing to say,” Akerman said in 1996, “[I] shot films about that ‘nothing.’”

Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman

As she got older, Akerman turned more freely to parallel forms, launching multiple art installations, and in 2001 performing a monologue, A Family in Brussels, that was later published as a book. Her final book, My Mother Laughs, culminates on the page a lifelong aversion and attraction to personal narrative. First published in 2013, a year before Nelly’s death, and two years before the filmmaker’s suicide, the book now bears the weight of testament. It is better read as an extension of Akerman’s lifelong pursuit of enigma, paradox, and risk. Published in English last year, with a translation by Corina Copp, My Mother Laughs details Nelly’s decline, her daughter’s difficulty entering the role of caretaker, and a destructive affair. Its narrator is bound foremost by contradiction: longing for home but afraid to be still; craving intimacy but unable to endure it. Porous yet purely individual, she is a figure of freedom and entrapment, for whom survival and self-investigation may amount to the same thing.

Written in a voice that recalls her winding, intransigent 1996 monologue, My Mother Laughs further complicates Akerman’s vertiginous relationship to self-portraiture. The uninitiated reader must glean from this deceptively open, diaristic text what few biographical details it yields: the narrator makes films and writes; she hails from Brussels, where her ailing mother still lives; she has had loving partners and at least one disastrous one. Though it describes a medical drama and Nelly’s ensuing decline, the memoir documents more fully a crisis of daughterhood, which for Akerman equals a crisis of creation. Faced with the loss of her mother, she returns with renewed urgency to the questions that animate her most personal and powerful work: of maternal legacy, daughterly love, and the obligations that exist between women of any relation.

Born an “old child” to two Holocaust survivors, Akerman claims in My Mother Laughs that she never grew up. Over the decades she returned periodically to her mother’s house to collapse, “ever exhausted by the adult life [she] couldn’t live.” At sixty, the reversal of their roles heightens Akerman’s sense of herself as unreconciled to adulthood, and especially to life without her mother. If not a daughter, who might she be? What stories could she tell?

Chantal Akerman and her mother. Courtesy of The Song Cave.

Images punctuate the text, a mix of personal photos and movie stills, enhancing the book’s interest in fluidity, the way fixed things remain in motion, and vice versa. For Akerman, the self especially is unstable, subject to all manner of transport and convergence. Her narrator’s memory is unreliable, selective: it purges the details of her mother’s initial health crisis and mutes signs of her partner’s turbulence. Her perspective is diffuse, moving between first-, second-, and third-person address. Akerman uses simple, lucid prose to trace a labyrinthine predicament, revisiting a persistent tension in her work. To the extent that it’s possible to know one’s self, the book suggests, that knowledge may not be enough to settle the spirit, or offer a home in the world. The reader experiences for herself the dilemma’s perversity: each of the narrator’s intimate disclosures and keen self-assessments renders her more remote. The more vividly drawn her alienation, the further the possibility of its resolution drifts from view.

In this the book recalls Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), Akerman’s fourth film, a bleak, discursive chronicle of a director on a mini-publicity tour for her latest film. A roman à clef snapshot, Anna conjures interiority by way of inversion. As in My Mother Laughs, Akerman offers no backstory and little context for her protagonist. Framed in crisp, well-proportioned long shots, Anna (Aurore Clément) is an obscure yet vivid presence, a figure moving from space to temporary, transitional European space. We learn about Anna mostly by watching her navigate these spaces, the way she resists containment, succumbs, then refuses again. In a series of slow-moving scenes she functions as audience and subject both, watching and listening to the people she meets, (mostly male) fellow travelers who speak of heartache and displacement.

Wearing an expression of soft amazement, saying little, sorry or not sorry that soon enough she’ll have to go, Anna is a figure of transience and unsettling focus. Akerman’s eye is as steady: here her static framing and long takes transform each train platform and hotel room, challenging with aesthetic precision the larger chaos—personal and historical—such places invoke. Disparate spaces collapse together. As Akerman’s obvious stand-in, Anna exists in a state of suspended arrival and perpetual departure. One line, delivered with an unhappy shrug early in Les rendez-vous d’Anna, captures the whole: “You have to live somewhere.”

Anna’s most meaningful encounter occurs in Brussels, to which she returns after an absence of three years. In yet another train station, she meets a woman (Lea Massari) who turns out to be her mother. Appearing at once intimate and foreign to each other, they proceed not to the family home but to a hotel room, where mother and daughter share a bed. There Anna describes, in her longest stretch of dialogue, the freedom and comfort she experienced being with a woman for the first time. Her mother demurs, invokes Anna’s father, ends the conversation. 

Almost thirty-five years later, nursing her similarly present yet elusive mother in Brussels, Akerman writes to escape. It rarely works: “When I write it’s still about her and is not a release, like people who don’t write imagine. No, it’s not a release. Not a real one.” Perhaps most unnerving to Akerman is her mother’s laughter, which alternates with Nelly’s moans, sighs, and bodily complaints. Nothingness looms, familiar but altered. “She laughs over nothing,” Akerman writes. “This nothing is a lot.” She resists the urge, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to flee. “Anyway here or elsewhere, what’s the difference. My life, I have no life . . . But elsewhere is always better. So I’m just leaving and leaving again and coming back forever.”

Les rendez-vous d’Anna

Akerman’s first significant, self-imposed exile formed the basis for News from Home (1977), a film essay that pairs documentary images of New York City with Akerman’s reading of letters Nelly sent her over the two years she spent in Manhattan. The juxtaposition sparks a durable tension, one that generates humor, frustration, and above all a sense of rare attachment, rich with loving ambivalence. Akerman’s long, static shots combine anonymity and fixed identity: this is nowhere but New York, a city of strangers at the center of the world. Though she never appears, the images assert young Akerman’s will to perspective. Permeated by her mother’s words—often banal, occasionally beseeching—those same images come to suggest the futility of any one person’s flight from home, if not from the self.

What remains unspoken between mother and daughter suffuses My Mother Laughs, as it does No Home Movie (2015), Akerman’s final film. Both a gentler and more rending companion to My Mother Laughs, the film delivers us Nelly for the first time, and in full: her charm, enigma, generosity, and withholding. Shot largely in Nelly’s Brussels apartment, it picks up roughly where the book leaves off, with her mother in the grip of an illness it becomes clear will not relent. What healing is possible when death is near? What revelation might the close of life bring? Frightened, tired, but mostly calm, Akerman appears guileless and resigned by turns. She places the camera at waist height, capturing from a child’s-eye view her mother’s increasingly lengthy naps and tortuous meals. Especially alongside the memoir, the tender dynamic No Home Movie documents appears at once real and performed, an echo of itself. Akerman prods and indulges her mother; Nelly laughs. 

The loss My Mother Laughs and No Home Movie describe most acutely is that of a safety that was only ever dimly understood. Nelly is no longer safe in her own body, or the Brussels apartment through which a series of care workers rotate. Her noises, her demands, her presence torment Akerman, whose desperation to work is fueled in part by the sense of a mounting threat. Having served as a generative haven of symbols and ideas, Nelly resolves into a failing body. By turns cool and terrified, Akerman turns a pitiless eye on that body, “a real bag of bones,” observing with dismay its broken shoulder, trembling hands, and thinning hair. Her mother’s needs move and irritate her in equal measure. As they often did in Akerman’s films, in My Mother Laughs mother and daughter’s voices tend to merge on the page. “Do you want to read a little, I ask, no I have blurry vision,” goes one passage. “Or listen to some music? My hearing aid hurt my left ear canal, my ear canal is too narrow. The gadget injured me. See, it’s red. It will pass. Yes, says my mother, maybe but it endures.” 

For the daughter, her mother’s suffering portends both an ultimate conflation and the approach of a limit, a final division between them. “My mother secretes an unbearable anguish,” Akerman writes, “and I have to flee fast to avoid contamination but am contaminated anyway and my mother feels shunned and treated like a piece of furniture, until not really or not at all but sometimes she does feel that so her anguish mounts and I must escape her further still.”

In No Home Movie, the anguish that permeates her memoir is most present when Akerman is offscreen. It haunts the images of nothingness—a wind-scorched desert, empty backyard, and silent apartment—that punctuate the film, and evoke lines that appear near the end of My Mother Laughs: “I have survived everything to date, and I’ve often wanted to kill myself,” Akerman writes. “But I told myself I could not do this to my mother. Later, when she’s not here anymore.”

No Home Movie

The book is like that, dropping anvils like feathers in the reader’s path. The risk is in the honesty, but more so in the evocation of a consciousness inclined toward darkness even as it courses with hunger, yearning, life. Akerman’s battle with self-portraiture—what her story comprises, how to tell it, and where it might end—is one she inherited from Nelly, and Nelly from her own mother, a painter who before she was murdered at Auschwitz filled huge canvases with women’s faces. “Faces,” Nelly once told her daughter, “that could see me.” Akerman’s work enacts a female, generational struggle to see and be seen by the women we know best, to claim and honor a maternal heritage, to forge a frame broad enough to hold the silence where all the stories should be.

Akerman reappears briefly at the end of her episode of Cinéma, de notre temps. “Last attempt at a self-portrait,” she says, holding the camera’s gaze. “My name is Chantal Akerman. I was born in Brussels.”


A series of films by Chantal Akerman is now playing on the Criterion Channel.