Short entries on films I’ve seen for the first time or significant revisits in January
No Home Movie (Dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2015)
Like Bowie’s Blackstar, Akerman’s final film No Home Movie is destined to remain inextricably tied to the singular filmmaker’s death in all future discourse. A mere two months following the film’s premiere, Akerman was found dead – the media reporting it a suicide. Given this staggering filmic essay’s intensely personal subject matter, it’s no stretch to link Akerman’s passing with the inevitable, yet devastating outcome of this unplanned, unscripted work. From over twenty hours of footage shot over the course of the last years of her mother’s life, Akerman pieces together intimate filmed conversations between she and her mother Natalia. Most of these take place within the confines of Natalia’s Brussels flat, but Akerman also includes long distance interactions captured via Skype as well as marathon uninterrupted takes of barren landscapes or inert objects to underscore the pains of the passage of time as only she could. It’s fitting that her final film, then, is also expressly concerned with how time affects her camera’s subject, but it’s also shockingly intimate in its execution.
Clearly, the decline of Natalia’s health and eventual passing had a significant impact on what Akerman allowed No Home Movie to become. In a way, it plays like a welcome companion piece to News from Home – a film where Akerman reads actual letters from her mother over a collection of images of New York, her home away from home. Her latest is somewhat of an inversion of that earlier work. Before, those shots of a far-off New York served as the filmmaker distancing herself from her passive-aggressive mother who longed for her to return home to Belgium. Now, the claustrophobic camerawork that explores nearly every corner of Natalia’s flat reveals an individual who can’t seem to get enough time with a fading loved one. Perhaps No Home Movie is a reckoning? Or a document of the process of making up for lost time? It’s impossible to know exactly what Akerman felt as she shot, edited, and ultimately released this unique home video to the world, but it does seem to be a fitting and even satisfying end to a tragically stunted career of one of cinema’s most daring artists.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Dir. Max Ophüls, United States, 1948)
Drama, drama, drama! Max Ophüls’ mid-career romance Letter from an Unknown Woman is full of it. And, though high melodrama – particularly from this mid-century Hollywood period – is a tough sell for this cinephile to begin with, I had high hopes for my entry into Ophüls’ work. While the elaborate camerawork is stunning with its dreamlike sweeps and lateral movements – certainly appropriate for this type of imagined flashback narrative structure – the film as a whole struck me as surprisingly forgettable. Joan Fontaine failed to woo me as the naïve Lisa who allows her entire world to shift its axis to rotate around a man she never properly meets. And, while I appreciated the trajectory of the film’s mature narrative that found Lisa growing up and accepting the marriage proposal of an older man out of necessity for her and her son born scandalously out of wedlock, I had hoped its finale would have taken a turn reminiscent of the one the parted lovers share in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But, when Lisa throws caution to the wind for the last time for the man who can never really love her for who she is, it’s almost too eye-roll inducing to handle.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)
Speaking of drama, nothing could have prepared me for the shattering experience of master Kenji Mizoguchi’s aesthetic-refining masterpiece The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Though Sansho the Bailiff remains my favorite of the filmmaker’s works, this Meiji period piece concerning performers of the highly regarded Japanese theater known as Kabuki has already become a close second since my first viewing this month. It’s difficult not to gush over this film, which totally blew me away with its virtuoso (though decidedly not showy) long takes, meticulously choreographed set pieces, and remarkably mature handling of its themes of honor, familial duty, and the sacrifice of women in a fiercely patriarchal society. And, I hope to dedicate many more words to this gem once I’ve seen it for a second time. I suspect I will uncover even more nuances in the character development and impressive compositions that serve the film’s tragic narrative.