The last time the filmmaker Chantal Akerman appears in “No Home Movie” she’s tying her shoelaces. Seated on a bed in a dark, sparsely furnished room with a single window, she doesn’t say anything. She just ties her shoes, draws the curtains and exits, letting the shot linger on the empty room. Her mother, Natalia, has been failing and Ms. Akerman’s melancholy hangs over the scene like funeral crepe. The first time I watched it, her heavy silence was painful to see; the second time, watching had turned into raw feeling because Ms. Akerman is now gone.
Ms. Akerman died in October, apparently a suicide, at 65. One of the most influential filmmakers of the past several decades, she leaves behind two-dozen features, including “No Home Movie,” which serves as a conceptual and emotional counterpoint to her early masterwork, “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975), which she made when she was 25. Her death makes “No Home Movie” even more of a memento mori than perhaps it might have seemed when she finished it, given her mother’s impending death. Yet this makes the movie sound far too bleak, especially in light of the love — the love that Ms. Akerman has for her mother, who returns it in kind — that suffuses it.
Yet the first image in “No Home Movie” is of a tree in a desert. It’s an old tree by the looks of the spindly, half-bare branches shuddering violently in the wind. It’s a simple, seemingly artless and largely stationary shot — Ms. Akerman adjusts the framing, always keeping the tree on the left — and because she holds on it for more than four minutes, you either look at it, really look at it, or leave. If you stay, you notice the wire (telephone?) across the bottom right corner, the road that bisects the image horizontally and the distant hills capped by the pale sky. Mostly, though, there is this resolute, trembling tree perched on what looks like an abyss. How, you wonder, does it survive?
Much of the rest of this two-hour movie takes place in Natalia Akerman’s pin-neat, middle-class apartment in Brussels. For the most part, Ms. Akerman simply records her mother in this apartment, fuss-budgeting about while murmuring to herself or talking to visitors like Ms. Akerman, whose camera often sits on a surface like another household appliance (which it is). The conversations between mother and daughter span the continuum from light to dark, present to past, from the young Chantal’s untied shoelaces to the Holocaust. Sometimes mother and daughter talk via Skype and you can see Ms. Akerman, who often seems to be calling from a new location, pointing her camera at her laptop, her tiny image in the window that lets each caller see how she looks to the other.
These Skype talks charm you with sweet declarations (“kisses”) and some gentle comedy (Maman is a bit technologically challenged), although mostly with their unguarded intimacy. Like the rest of the movie, they have the spontaneity and ineffable fascination of real life; it feels as if Ms. Akerman had turned on the camera seconds before she and her mother began talking. In time, though, her mother grows increasingly frail, they also assume an undertow of sadness. Ms. Akerman’s filmography, which sent her across the globe, from the Baltics to Mexico, has turned her into one of cinema’s nomads, as have the festivals (Berlin, Cannes, New York) in which her work has been presented. There’s a rootlessness to her, as even her meanderings through her mother’s apartment suggest.
Midway through “No Home Movie,” Ms. Akerman cuts to a succession of traveling shots of a desert. They cleave the movie in two. There’s no overt explanation for them; there’s no voice-over commentary and none of the traditional documentary time, date and location markers. Again, as she does with the image of the shuddering tree, Ms. Akerman lets you read the image for yourself, even as she has also carefully laid out the movie’s meaning in every previous edit, shot and word, including her mother’s remembrances of the family’s history, about keeping kosher, about the flight from Poland, the Nazis and the war. In your head, these mother-daughter conversations — “We thought we were safe here, in Belgium,” Natalia says at one point — become one with the thrashing desert wind.
And, just like that, the title of “No Home Movie” takes on piercing meaning. Like any number of Ms. Akerman’s other movies, this one revisits some of her preoccupations — home, exile, memory, identity, bodies, specifically the female body, on- and offscreen space — through the prism of Natalia, long one her most ineluctable subjects. Ms. Akerman’s movies are unmistakably personal in the rigorousness of their formal design but also in their motifs, with each informing the other. That’s true of “Jeanne Dielman,” an unblinking three-and-a-half-hour look at an outwardly impassive Belgian homemaker (Delphine Seyrig) who turns tricks in her immaculate, sterile apartment amid other quotidian activities like folding sheets and making a meatloaf for more than three deliberate minutes.
A feminist touchstone, “Jeanne Dielman” has often been discussed within a theoretical and political framework (voyeurism, the male gaze) that can feel as mechanical as a 101 intro to cinema studies. With its long takes, silences and emphasis on the kinds of everyday moments that most movies tend to ignore, the film isn’t obviously inviting, perhaps particularly for viewers whose rhythms are calibrated to those of dominant cinema and its three acts, ping-pinging shots and counter-shots, inciting incidents and tidy ends. You need to meet Ms. Akerman on her terms, although even when you do, her work may not completely open itself up to you, even after repeated viewings. Its difficulty (or mystery), which can feel like her stubborn persistence of vision, is part of its pleasure.
If you let it, “No Home Movie” invites you in first with its intimacy and then its deep feeling. It’s filled with Ms. Akerman’s signatures, like images of doorways, halls and obliquely shot rooms, which can make her seem like a spy in her mother’s house. This is not, as the title reminds you, a home movie in the usual sense, and yet it is. The deaths haunting it as well as some of its themes — the Holocaust, the Jewish diaspora, that far-off desert and the refuge we find in another’s embrace — can make it unbearably sad. The moment that I keep returning to occurs during a Skype talk when Ms. Akerman shows her reflection in her laptop screen, her face floating over her mother’s like a ghost. She’s away yet she also feels home.
“No Home Movie” is not rated. It is in French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes