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Review: Documentaries ‘No Home Movie’ and ‘I Don’t Belong Anywhere’ provide moving portraits of the late filmmaker Chantal Akerman

Akerman Review
An image from the movie “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman.”
(Icarus Films)

Near the beginning of “I Don’t Belong Anywhere,” Marianne Lambert’s astute and poetic portrait of filmmaker Chantal Akerman, its subject speaks of being afraid. That’s a startling confession from an artist as daring and original as Akerman. But months earlier, with the death of her mother, her nomadic life underwent a seismic shift from which, it seems, she never recovered.

Natalia Akerman had fled Poland for Belgium only to be sent to Auschwitz, and her story, in one form or another, was at the core of her daughter’s work. Now that her mother was gone, Akerman wonders aloud to Lambert, “Will I still have something to say?”

The nakedness of that moment is awful now that Akerman too is gone, having taken her life in October. At the time of the interview for Lambert’s documentary, she was editing “No Home Movie,” the tender, haunting film that would turn out to be her last. Set mostly in Natalia’s Brussels apartment, it’s an intimate self-reflection that, like all of Akerman’s work, unfolds to an uncommon pulse. It asks of the viewer a kind of openness that might be called patience and richly rewards it.

Using pieces of furniture as tripods, Akerman fixes her lens on various corners of the apartment, and she and her affably puttering octogenarian maman move in and out of the frame. If death is a presence in the film — in those still-lifes anticipating Natalia’s absence; in her unarticulated memories of Auschwitz — so is the spark of life, bittersweet and mysterious. It’s in the profound affection between mother and daughter, unequivocal in the loving gazes they exchange across a kitchen table or via Skype.

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“She’s spent her whole life making cheerful noises,” Akerman said of Natalia in a 2013 interview. “To hide what was destroyed.” In “No Home Movie,” Akerman gently edges those cheerful noises toward the dark center that Natalia has skirted for three-quarters of a century. They don’t quite get there, but their small talk gradually shifts to discussions about family, religion and war.

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Natalia Ackerman and her daughter Sylviane in the documentary "No Home Movie," by Chantal Ackerman.

(Icarus Films)

With its focus on domestic interiors (and interior lives), the movie doesn’t simply recall Akerman’s past efforts; it reveals their roots. The resonance is particularly significant in the case of “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels,” the tour de force she made when she was only 24. That landmark feature closely observed the monotonous household chores of a widow who moonlighted as a prostitute, in the process moving the disregarded details of women’s lives to the forefront. It’s one of 14 Akerman films sensitively excerpted in “I Don’t Belong Anywhere.”

Within the doc’s brief running time, Lambert sculpts a discerning overview of the artist and her filmography. Her film (which opens in Los Angeles the same day as “No Home Movie”) finds its own pulse and never feels rushed. It’s a compelling introduction for Akerman novitiates while offering fresh insights to devotees.

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An impassioned Akerman tells Lambert that she aims for the opposite of what most “good directors” do: “What I want is for people to feel the passing of time.” Not many directors would open a film with a four-minute shot of a wind-battered tree, as Akerman does in “No Home Movie.” Later she returns to that setting, or one like it, with footage of a barren, rocky landscape, shot from the passenger seat of a car. To be on that ride with her is to feel the passing of time but also to connect an exquisite wildness to the soft pinks and diffuse light of Natalia’s orderly apartment.

In one of their transatlantic video chats, Akerman tells Natalia that she needs to sign off soon. “You don’t have to explain,” her mother responds. “We say goodbye and that’s it.” But they don’t hang up; they hang on, enchanted, not wanting to let go.

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‘No Home Movie’

In French, English and Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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‘I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman’

In French and English with English subtitles.

No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 8 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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