Chantal Akerman was one of the most influential directors in film history. She would hate such an accolade, but it’s warranted nonetheless. She often made movies — as well as art installations, photographs, and books — about enduring day-to-day living. Women were at the center of work; she examined their positions in society, their traumas, and the oppressive forces acting upon them.
Mother figures tend to crop up, be it fictional ones or her own — Natalia “Nelly” Akerman, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz and went on to raise Akerman and another daughter, Sylviane, in Brussels. For instance, Delphine Seyrig plays a quietly imploding housewife in 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, a minimalist epic chronicling her monotonous existence of cleaning, cooking, tending to her son, and sleeping with men for money. In 1977’s News from Home, a rigorous nonfiction film about Akerman’s detachment and alienation while living in New York City, Nelly is not seen, but is heard in letters (ending each one with “your loving mother”), read in voiceover by the filmmaker. Onscreen, static long shots capture the lonelier side of Manhattan — wide, empty streets and crowded subway cars filled with casually indifferent commuters.
In Akerman’s later works, Nelly, now in her 80s, explicitly becomes a focus once more. We see this in a three-channel installation at The Kitchen (2013’s Maniac Shadows), a book (Ma mère rit, or “My Mother Laughs,” published the same year, passages of which were read at the installation), and a documentary (2015’s No Home Movie). That film, Akerman’s last, is a portrait of her mother in the autumnal phase of her life, the accretion of so much unspoken trauma felt in long takes of her in her home. Nelly died at age 86 in 2014. Akerman, who struggled with depression throughout her life, died by suicide the next year. My Mother Laughs, a devastating text newly translated into English by Corina Copp, deepens our understanding of the impact Akerman’s mother had on her art. Casually moving back and forth in time, the book is a memoir companion to No Home Movie, capturing Akerman’s state of mind during the end of Nelly’s life.
Just like her films, My Mother Laughs is precise. Not merely economical, Akerman’s exacting prose draws attention to the physical presence of the words themselves. Her sentences are short and simple, with a consistent subject-verb-object structure, building a sustained staccato rhythm. The book has a tinge of the confessional, but none of the sentimentality one may associate with memoir. The writing is direct, but the subject matter drifts, and drifts, and drifts; stories of friends, family, and lovers all swirl together. It’s not an easy read. Akerman doesn’t use quotation marks, lines of thought begin and end unpredictably, time frames jump around, and the subjects of certain sections aren’t immediately apparent. It conveys the sense of roiling thought, and it returns time and time again to Nelly. Akerman acknowledges towards the beginning that “when I write it’s still about her and is not a release like people who don’t write imagine. No, it’s not a release. Not a real one.”
This isn’t art as therapy or catharsis. It’s Akerman living and making sense of her granular feelings toward her mother. She has done this in the past, but not to this extent. Akerman alternately enjoys Nelly’s laughter and love of life, flees from her emotional neediness, suffers from her years of silence, and is surprised by what she reveals (“she said to me my girls, my girls have everything. I didn’t have anything except the camps. That was the first time she said that”). Most of the events in the book take place around the time of several illnesses and surgeries Nelly had, rendering her unrecognizable in Akerman’s eyes. (“A woman moans in her bed.”)
The vicissitudes of the emotions Akerman experiences over her mother spill elsewhere into her life, like a crumbling relationship with a girlfriend:
Skinned alive, proud, arrogant, shy, whole, too much, and I had only scratched her sores. I was standing and I said, I don’t love you. I don’t love you anymore.
That’s not possible.
No. Yes. No. Yes.
Those alternating one-word sentences cut to the quick of a fleeting mind. Such mercurial, uneasy, tempestuous thoughts unreel page after page. They’re never at a pause, never quiet and calm. They’re circular, and inevitably touch upon death. Near the end, amid the flow, Akerman’s reflections turn grim: “One day I even tried to kill myself but was smiling, pointedly not forgetting to smile, as if it were a gesture without consequences. Luckily it was, since I survived everything to date, and I’ve often wanted to kill myself. But I told myself I could not do this to my mother.”
Like with Osamu Dazai and Édouard Levé beforehand, what does one do with literature like this, saturated with so much personal grief and despair? Hopefully it leads to self-awareness as to why one reads these texts. My Mother Laughs may be Akerman’s most interior, psychological work. It’s one final message from the artist, illuminating the mottled effect her mother had on her life and creativity.