I don’t have a life, I’ve never learned how to make one for myself. Here or elsewhere.
– Ma mère rit (2019)
I’m just disconnected, from practically everything. I have a few anchors, and sometimes I let them go or they let me go, and I drift. That’s most of the time. Sometimes I hang on for a few days, minutes, seconds, then I let go again. I can hardly look. I can hardly hear. Semi-blind, semi-deaf, I float. Sometimes I sink. But not quite. Something, sometimes a detail, brings me back to the surface, and I start floating again.
– Là-bas (2006)
In the final decade of her life, Chantal Akerman produced autobiographical studiesThe mentioned autobiographical studies from this period exclude No Home Movie (2015), a documentary film about Akerman’s elderly mother. This is due to the fact that No Home Movie shows the filmmaker only in interaction with her mother, the latter being the film’s subject, in contrast to Là-bas and Ma mère rit which center on Akerman herself and her interior life. in two media: the digital film Là-bas (Down There, 2006) and the book Ma mère rit (My Mother Laughs, 2015; transl. 2019). They present an almost entirely retrospective reflection on a life lived, an attempt to explain one’s position in it. Akerman addresses a lack of belonging and a nomadism provoked, it seems, by a far-reaching and inherent detachment. In her autobiographies as well as in interviews, she linked this detachment to her awkward relation to her body and her clumsiness, but just as well to her lack of pragmaticism when it comes to arranging the practical necessities of day-to-day life.
It is hardly surprising that someone who describes their everyday experiences largely as viewed from a permanent estrangement from one’s own position and body in the world will opt, when bringing autobiographical elements into her work, to present them with a similar distance, from the perspective of an onlooker rather than a subject. While to make oneself the object of one’s gaze can be regarded as the core of any autobiographical impulse, Akerman’s continuous re-examination of herself adds up to a collection of gazes. Especially read through the lens of Ma mère rit, the final text Akerman wrote, the autobiographical elements throughout her oeuvre give the impression of a woman frantically mapping herself from various viewpoints. In a number of characters, roles and confessional voiceovers, she appears to explore the subject she suspects herself to be, through the portrayal of fragments of herself. The manic energy of Saute ma ville (Blow up my Town, 1968); the non-responsive daughter in News from Home (1977); the illegible and disconnected travelling filmmaker in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna, 1978); the woman in her fifties in Là-bas looking to make sense of the way she was raised, and, by extension, a place of belonging, in an apartment in Tel Aviv she dares not leave after an attack by the seaside, while locals have already resumed their day-to-day life. Looking at her oeuvre through this autobiographical lens gives us an idea of all the different ways one may objectify oneself to understand oneself throughout a lifetime, how the gaze grants different emphases throughout different phases: giving us the self approached as a material and political body during adolescence (La Chambre [The Room, 1972]; Je, tu, il, elle [I, You, He, She, 1974]), a tragicomic fool (Les Rendez-vous d’Anna) and finally, shifting entirely from observation to interior reflection, as someone doomed to feel disconnected and estranged (Là-bas; Ma mère rit).
Studying the Body
There is a striking fragment in Ma mère rit in which Akerman recalls visiting her mother in the hospital, who begrudgingly tells her daughter on arrival that she’d like to smack her because she looks so unkempt. However humorous this could be read given a certain tone of voice, the phrase was uttered in complete seriousness, and it becomes a pivotal moment in Akerman’s interpretation of her relationship with her mother. What appears for Akerman, in this moment, is an earnestness her mother had always hidden under layers of well-adjusted politeness, precisely those traits Chantal had always lacked in her eyes. Hence, the smack becomes an almost explanatory trope for Akerman’s self-described feeling of out-of-placeness in her body, acquired through an adolescence under the constant maternal gaze of the celebrated beautiful woman who, after surviving the camps, required near-perfection from everything and everyone around her to achieve peace of mind.
In keeping with how she believes these unfulfilled expectations have influenced her, Akerman has addressed her relation to her body as a central reason for including herself as a performer in her films:
My body in a movie is very important, it says something by itself, it has the weight of the Real. I can’t have actresses playing my clumsiness. It seems impossible for me to be in a restaurant without knocking something over: my gestures are too large, or I’m pursuing my thoughts and get startled. You’re out of convention with your own body, with your own way of moving. When I was a child, and being raised in such a conventional bourgeois high school, I thought it was a question of class, I attributed my non-conformity to the fact that I was a Jew. I didn’t attribute it to gender then, but I realized later that the other girls were already built to fit what a young woman was raised to become, in conformity with their future as women in a normative society: my parents didn’t have the time, they didn’t succeed. When I was fifteen and ate too much chocolate, and put on weight, my father suddenly realized that I had to get skinnier to be sold to a man; he wanted me to wear dresses but it didn’t work. When I was 18 I rushed to Paris, then I rushed to New York, to get even farther away.
What followed these experiences were early movies in which the body is studied in its materiality, as a body in space. An example can be found in La Chambre, in which the body is observed neutrally in a similar role to the furniture, the surrounding objects in a room, the pale nude skin recorded having the same semantic charge as the dark wood of the vintage dresser. They are recorded in a sort of literalism related to the structural cinema in which Akerman becomes emerged in the early seventies at the very beginning of her career.
Meanwhile, naturally, a body is never neutral; it will always be read—as feminine, as bearing traits of a certain ethnicity—and thus her ‘neutral’ recordings automatically evoke all kinds of readings, become semiotically charged; in comes the political. The impossibility of performing her gender correctly, with the expected decorum, thus inevitably becomes part of her portrayal of the body in both La Chambre and Je, tu, il, elle. This takes place far more explicitly in the latter, in which the main character, played by Akerman herself, eats spoonfuls of sugar and drinks her beer in short compulsive movements. The true thwarting of any desirable performance of femininity can be discerned in the two subsequent sexual interactions she engages in with a trucker and her ex-girlfriend, the latter of which is framed in its entirety and plays out in real time.
Studying the Mind
If I had been born here, my mother would have let me play in the street with the other children. In Brussels, she wouldn’t let me. She was afraid. Here, she would have let me and I wouldn’t have spent life looking out of the window at the other children playing with a ball or something else. Looking out the window, I got all up inside myself. Here, I would have run, I would have screamed. Here, the child is a king like in America. Now I’m in the habit of looking out the window. I look and I get all up inside myself.
This fragment from the voiceover of Là-bas, spoken by Akerman herself, in reference to herself, articulates a number of themes and formal characteristics that pervade Ma mère rit as well. A shift to interior reflection takes place with these two late autobiographical texts: both form a study of the filmmaker’s mind, the workings of the mind, articulated in a language and cinematography that incite feelings of restriction, imprisonment. In Ma mère rit, this sensation on Akerman’s part during her stay in Brussels to look after her recovering mother is verbalized—needlessly, since the almost compulsive repetition of particular ideas and sentences in her writing already leads to an impression of claustrophobia. This fragment from Là-bas triggers a similar effect. The triple repetition (“my mother would’ve let me”; “she wouldn’t let me”; “she would have let me”)—the second phrase moreover being uttered in an almost childishly upset tone of voice—gives the impression of a child stuck in its train of thought. This is verbalized in the similarly repeated phrase “get all up inside myself,” the second uttering of which furthermore explicates precisely the fact that this childish attitude has somehow survived into adulthood. There are a number of similar fragments in Ma mère rit, in which stressful situations all of a sudden lead to a kind of regression in which a simple thought can’t be processed, becomes impossible to think through and leads to the same answer over and over again. In Là-bas, the impossibility to overcome these thoughts is immediately addressed in the fragment itself; the cause is found in the childhood spent alone, inside looking out, estranged from others and without the opportunity to create a proper consciousness of one’s body through physical exercise, games.
The repetition that characterizes these works has been aesthetically inherent to Akerman’s cinema and writing from the very beginning of her oeuvre, yet it only contributes to an impression of confinement in these later works. While the similarly repetitive voiceover of Je, tu, il, elle is a self-observation focused on the description of repeated acts, Là-bas’ voiceover emphasizes mental states and Akerman’s interpretation of shreds of her family history. It is due to the introduction of these highly subjective, personal reflections (most often of a painful nature) that the repetition in both image and text creates a sense of restriction. What falls away entirely is the distance of the earlier self-observations. Both Ma mère rit and Là-bas present only the literal perspective of the director-subject, who, in the act of drawing her self-observation further into herself, takes the viewer along. In Là-bas, the frame no longer includes the subject of the film (Akerman) but solely shows her point of view—the outside world as seen through the venetian blinds of the dark apartment to which she has confined herself, with only occasional shots of the beach. These sudden views of the coastline of Tel-Aviv feel like an escape as they break through the sequence of restrictive images from the inside of the apartment, while what they bring to light is precisely the scene of the attack that provoked the filmmaker’s self-confinement, long after traces of the violence have disappeared, and people have resumed their normal way of life. Countless inhabitants of Tel-Aviv walk by at ease and the camera captures them from a great distance, articulating the estrangement of the filmmaker who, gripped by anxiety after the attack, experiences the space in such a way that she is completely disconnected from those who surround her. In relation to the voiceover but also due to the nature of the images, the repetition proper to Akerman’s early cinema here ceases to be something spatial or literalist, reminiscent of structural cinema as in Hotel Monterey. Neither do these later works demonstrate the humor evoked by repetition in the forms of recurring variations of similar social interactions, movements or frames as in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna. What differentiates these works from Là-bas as well as Ma mère rit, is precisely the objectifying distance that is upheld by their aesthetics.
Situating the Tragicomic Fool
The most significant shift in Akerman’s self-portrayals is the fact that her alter-egos in the first autofictional works are truly approached from the outside, leaving no room for identification, only a permanent wondering about what thoughts are going through the heads of her saint-like silent figures (Anna) or otherwise impenetrable, dissident young women (Saute ma ville; Je, tu, il, elle). The de-psychologization of the characters takes place not only through the non-naturalistic acting style, but also in large part because they neither discuss nor narrate their interior world. As a result, what surfaces in the early works is mostly the tragicomical aspect of being or feeling out of place, the farcical nature of the impossibility of relation, of communication. In Anna, this becomes clear through her detached listening to the expansive ramblings of the people she encounters; they want to communicate to the extent that their expressions finally become almost meaningless in the absence of response. Their articulations make clear what Anna’s silence may come to mean to someone else: acceptance or at least acquiescence, someone to freely project one’s desires upon, whether the desired is a wife, a daughter-in-law or a nurse. Whenever she does answer, it’s more often than not in the form of a slow ‘yes’ that seems in every way to defy the affirmative nature of the very word.
The rather comical tone also shines through in the constant out-of-placeness of Anna’s body in public spaces and situations. In the introductory scene, she’s the only one to separate herself from a small troop of uniformly disembarking train passengers on the platform to walk past the stairs. In the shot where she goes to meet her mother, she’s the only one with loudly clacking heels in the station hall. The mother is first shown at a great distance in a planimetric long shot and it takes an awkwardly long time for the relatives to reach each other in the middle of the symmetrical frame after they’ve recognized one another. It all adds up to a kind of solitary, Tatiesque type of physical comedy. While these scenes do concern physicality, it is no longer a study of what a body can be in itself, nor does it portray the early defiance against what a body should be. It is in many ways a comedic reconciliation between the lack of well-adjustedness Akerman’s mother blamed her for—clumsiness and disregard for etiquette—and the norm which the early films still explicitly fought against in some way. What matters here—and I believe this is noticeable from Akerman’s choice to work with actress Aurore Clément, rather than playing the role of Anna herself—is not the body as a site of rebellion, but exactly the dysfunctional relation between mind and body, the estrangement between mind and body; a body that is clumsy but just as well a body that hardly ever adequately articulates what the mind is thinking, hence becoming a blank canvas for others.
The humor-constituted-by-distance in Anna touches upon the biggest discrepancy between these early autofictional works and the later, openly autobiographical Là-bas and Ma mère rit. As the character is observed from a distance, both by the director and the audience, many of the formal strategies that will recur in the later works have radically different outcomes. The childishness, repetition and refusal to take the final authoritative word in Ma mère rit and Là-bas lead to a far graver atmosphere than their equivalents in the earlier works. Anna’s slow, withdrawn ‘yes’ is very similar to Akerman describing her response to some people who reached out to her after the attack in Tel Aviv (“I said yes but I said no”), yet these instances in both Là-bas and Ma mère rit often appear to lack the appropriate distance to allow for comedic effect. As Akerman drew closer and closer to herself (her mind, her family relations) in her observation of herself, she drew the audience into her self-reflection as well. The punchline after the personal confession doesn’t strike quite the same chord as the punchline after its staging, in a planimetric extreme long shot, with the appropriate number of variations on the same scene to get a laugh, the appropriate lack of insight in the main character to not find oneself suddenly feeling clumsiness, one-sided conversations or messy hair to be somewhat gloomy.