Beautifully written itself, Chantal Akerman’s last book is difficult to write about. Ma mère rit was published in France in 2013, the year before Akerman’s mother died. It appears in English four years after she took her own life, on the completion of her final film, No Home Movie (2015). Within the wider ranks of francophone New Wave film-makers, Akerman has the distinction of being Belgian-Jewish, rather than French, and female—or, as she herself would put it, ‘a gender of my own’. A critical take on domesticity was the central theme of her extraordinary early work. Her first film, Saute Ma Ville (1968) was shot in the kitchen of her parents’ apartment; the 18-year-old Akerman gave a manic, slapstick performance of destroying the room before sealing the door, setting a newspaper on fire and turning on the gas. Her unforgettable Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) was set in the neat, bourgeois apartment of a forty-something widow; the film’s 200 minutes follow Jeanne as she performs her housewifely routines with perilous, metronomic precision, captured by Akerman’s collaborator Babette Mangolte in scrupulously framed compositions and unblinking long-duration shots. A silent indictment of the social order that imposes such life imprisonment, it required its audience to experience in real time just how long it took to make the bed, prepare a meatloaf, scrub the bath, grind the coffee. The glamorous Delphine Seyrig played the title role, an audacious piece of reverse casting which, according to Mangolte, evoked ‘a Brechtian aesthetic distance that raised the story above the anecdotal, to the archetypal—something more than realism.’
Realism is again at stake in My Mother Laughs. At one level, the book is a diary, and a sad one: notes written to keep the film-maker sane while she stays in the Brussels apartment of her elderly mother, the indomitable Nelly, who’s waiting for an operation (‘And me, will I manage to hold out for four weeks? Only if I write’). The narrative begins: ‘For now, my mother is alive and well. That’s what everyone says, and everyone also says that she is strong and nobody understands how she’s managed to survive’—survive a heart attack, a broken shoulder, crumbling bones, that is; but the verb, survivre, can’t not have another meaning. Nelly is a Jewish woman, born in Poland, who fled to Belgium as a teenager in the 1930s; under the Nazi Occupation she was deported to Auschwitz, returning to Brussels after the War. Chantal was born just five years later in the silent shadow of that experience; she has described her childhood as ‘full of holes’. Akerman’s anxiety about her mother’s health is mixed with a sort of bewilderment at her attachment to life: ‘She sleeps a lot, but she laughs. She enjoys herself. Then she sleeps.’
There’s a cinematic quality to Akerman’s writing, and she describes her mother with a camera-like gaze: ‘She waits for the housekeeper. She always waits in advance. Hours even. And she leaves in advance when she’s going anywhere and even nowhere, even if she knows she’s not going anywhere anymore.’ She duly records the daily details, the aches and pains, the shopping lists, the carers, Nelly’s nightly routine (‘she knows she has to tuck herself into the middle of the bed so she doesn’t fall out’). My Mother Laughs is interested both in showing, in unadorned light, this process of aging—another imprisonment, à la Jeanne Dielman, in the home—and in examining Chantal’s own response to it all, which includes her practice of documenting it as it unfolds. For if Akerman is known for capturing the multiple meanings of domestic banality, she is also a self-portraitist. The prose repeatedly comes back to the first-person perspective. ‘I’m preparing myself for her death’, she notes, in some variant, at several points. It’s a preparation that moves in circles, as the narrative flouts all linearity. In contrast to the slabs of real time that her films stitch together, in My Mother Laughs temporalities are fluid. The account reaches backwards and forwards to Chantal’s childhood, May 68, a wedding in Mexico—it is here that Nelly has her first heart attack—and Chantal’s attempts to escape from a claustrophobic relationship with an obsessively jealous younger woman, C, in New York. It ends, unexpectedly, with a new (or new-old) love, M, leaving the question of Nelly’s declining health in suspension as Akerman steers the reminiscence elsewhere.
Most of Akerman’s films find some occasion to ask what daughters owe their mothers, and whether it’s a debt they are willing to pay; it’s a question posed with unflinching honesty in My Mother Laughs. Akerman’s taut prose—beautifully translated in both English editions—probes the push and pull between tenderness and frustration, between the will to forget and the need to know. An undertow of violence lurks in every scene, as Akerman tries to draw out the story of her mother’s wartime experience. But Nelly is adamant: ‘I know that if I do, I’ll be lost.’ She thinks of her favourite cousin ‘as seldom as possible’—‘otherwise, I’d start to think of everyone else.’ Besides, she counter-charges, Chantal barely speaks at all about her life in New York. Disappointment and pride run in both directions. Nelly’s love of life, her laughter, her feminine charm—‘I was so proud of her, of my mother, this beautiful woman’; ‘I loved her so much: her youth, her beauty, her dresses’—are contrasted with Chantal’s ‘oddness’, her scruffy hair, her disorderly appearance. Though Nelly has always doted on her daughter with the beautiful blue eyes, upon waking up in hospital after an operation, she meets Chantal’s gaze with an outburst of aggression:
I can’t stand to see you in that dirty shirt, that’s what she said, you deserve a smack. She brought her hand up to her face like she was really going to do it. I thought to myself, she must have been bottling up this hatred for years. That it was the reason for all the kisses she’d given and taken away . . . My old clothes and unbrushed hair had always bothered her, hurt her even. It was the opposite of reassurance. An unwrinkled world. A very peaceful life without unironed shirts and nasty surprises.
The abhorrence of uncleanliness, one presumes, has its origins in Nelly’s own past; the spectre of the camps haunts the book, and gets passed between mother and daughter—a state Akerman captures in the slide between pronouns, so that both women are by turns referred to in first and third person, and who is speaking is not always clear:
There’s no such thing as an end. It could always begin again. Not in exactly the same way but restarting all the same, especially now when there are all these people sleeping on the street, I see more and more of them every time I go out and I always have to turn my head away because I can’t bear it . . . And it’s normal that they’re dirty but the dirtiness makes me shiver . . . I can’t look at that kind of dirtiness. I’ve known it once and I don’t want to hear any more about it . . . and when I see these dirty mattresses in the street my heart sinks and I ask my daughter how she can bear it. She says she can’t bear it either.