I fear that the following review may give away too much of Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie; but, I question how much there lies in its plot to spoil. Visually, the film captures a day in the life of your grandmother. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The movie, showing at Cornell Cinema this Thursday, begins with five minutes of a tree blowing in the wind. Five minutes for you to believe the film must have broken. Five minutes for you to get up and leave, being reminded of all the finals you could, and maybe should be studying for. Five minutes. Then, the camera switches. It turns to shoot another, even quieter scene — shocking only in its comparative decrease in interest. Who knew a rustling tree could be so captivating? And, as I look again at the time, I wonder what I’m missing — not just in the sense of what other activities could be filling my time, but within the theme, the plot and the story. I hope that my following review may convince you to endure the first twenty minutes of seemingly directionless observation. No Home Movie is puzzling.
The first fifth of the film is productive in reminding me of my to-do list. While the movie is slowly shifting from one nearly unmoving scene to another, I compound a more cohesive list of obligations than I do in even the sleepless hours of prelim season. The first twenty minutes of No Home Movie are an anxiety attack waiting to happen. Watching an unnamed woman, strangely reminiscent of my own grandmother, move about her home, I feel remorseful. I’m hit with a pang of guilt for 1). “forgetting” to call my grandmother and 2). loathing her interior decorating because, in comparison to Akerman’s scenery, my “Mom’s mom” home belongs in Vogue. My apologies consume me as the camera turns to another dreadfully disinteresting scene, this one even more unclear as the camera accidentally blurs out of focus. No Home Movie begins all too much like a home movie. And not the cute kind that you watch on Christmas Eve, not the one where you blew out the candles on your fourth birthday and accidentally drooled on the cake — the kind that your grandmother takes when she forgets she’s recording.
But, behold, minute twenty-one. The woman, “grandma” for our purposes, Skypes an old friend who asks the one question I’ve been wondering since the film began: “Tell me, why are you filming like that?” Grandma answers, “Because I want to show that there is no distance in the world.” And, finally, the film has a purpose other than to make me miss my grandmother’s wallpapered living room. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and continue watching. I feel renewed hope in the film and await the conviction that we are near.
Slowly, as is characteristic of the documentary, Chantal, the grandmother I identified earlier, gains a name and her filming gathers meaning. The quiet shifting from scene to scene — from living room to kitchen to lawn chair to bathtub — ironically captures the passage of time. Despite the seeming constancy of the lawn chair on the grass and the tree blowing in the wind, Chantal and her mother have both grown old. Despite the sameness, time moves forward. The once fashionable tiled walls of Chantal’s home are outdated and the distance between then and now dissolves. The seeming stillness becomes powerfully symbolic of Chantal’s old age and her mother’s slow death. It becomes clear that the friend Chantal Skypes with is her mother, a woman lovingly slipping away from life. I learn through their conversations that the two women are Belgian survivors of the Holocaust. German troops forced Chantal’s mother back to Poland during the war to endure Auschwitz. The tragedy Chantal’s mother has faced shocks me in relation to the quiet, unmoving, mundane scenery. No Home Movie, causes viewers to see how things can slip away. Just as Chantal and her friend comment on how there’s no mustard left in the fridge, they remember the insidious progress of German troops in Belgium. The calm scenery becomes disquieting. Time slips away from the women, but their memories of World War II remain fixed. The massacre against Belgium Jews suddenly resides in every corner of Chantal’s home. Their memories are felt even in silly conversations about the ugliness of their napkins and the variant sizes of pickles.
Ultimately, No Home Movie interjects powerful comments into a seemingly directionless film of shifting camera angles and quiet conversations. Chantal says to her loving mother that she continues filming because she “wants to show how small the world is.” She succeeds in every sense of her statement: dissolving time with memories, filming universal scenes of lawn chairs and Cheerios, and reminding me of my own aging grandparents. Depending on how you choose to perceive it, the film is slow or timeless. Each scene is dull or powerful. Each remark is emotionless or saddening. Despite my initial shock at the prosaic purposelessness of the film, I am left with a feeling of heaviness. The relationship between Chantal and her mother, and Chantal’s characteristic silliness, leave me touched and contemplative. Their simple life, moving ever steadily toward its end, is at once endearing and deeply sorrowful. No Home Movie is a film of impressions. If it keeps you in the theatre long enough to listen, it touches on a compassionate human note. It reminds viewers that life is short. So, if you have two hours to spare looking mostly at the inside of someone’s home (which apparently I did) you will love No Home Movie. If not, then take three minutes and call your grandmother. She misses you.
No Home Movie plays this Thursday May 6 at Cornell Cinema. Tickets are available at the door.
Julia Curley is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.