News from Home
Akerman is best known for her 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a (very) long-form experiment combining elements of domestic melodrama, crime story and "women's film" with radical new approaches to narrative structure and an audacious use of long takes and extended duration, stretching an uncomplicated story to well over three hours of sheer, mesmerizing cinema. Made just two years later, News from Home is similar in some ways--the editing is leisurely, the structure is spare--but also very different, running an economical 85 minutes and replacing narrative fiction with the documentary content of the letters heard in Akerman's voiceover. These are letters the filmmaker actually received from her mother, Natalia Akerman, a Holocaust survivor and fretful parent who later became the subject of No Home Movie, the documentary Akerman finished shortly before committing suicide in 2015. Viewers aware of this history will find the soundtrack of News from Home all the more poignant.
Photographed by Akerman's longtime collaborator Babette Mangolte, the shots of New York City that fill the screen in News from Home are at once gritty, elegant, mundane and above all haunting, gaining their cumulative power from the personal immediacy of the camera, which moves through its surroundings with a measured choreography that's simultaneously objective and subjective, precise and intuitive. Akerman seems most forcefully drawn to the underground, often descending into the stations, tunnels and trains of the subway system, and the lateral movement of subway cars is echoed by the sidelong tracking shots depicting streets, sidewalks and alleyways up above. The deliberate pace of the camera movement and editing contrasts with the pulsing energy of the city itself, establishing an atmosphere that's paradoxically restless and contemplative, with numerous static shots adding a painterly dimension to the visuals as well. Another fundamental contrast sets the anonymity of the sprawling urban scene against the intimacy of the film's verbal content, occasionally allowing the city's noise and clamor to drown out the words on the soundtrack. The joys, sorrows, hopes and anxieties expressed in the letters seem utterly removed yet inextricably intertwined with the environments Akerman explores while reading them. These multifaceted juxtapositions and contrasts lend News from Home a complexity that belies its deceptively simple surface.
Unlike some other Akerman films, including Jeanne Dielman and the introspective 1974 drama Je tu il elle, the markedly restrained News from Home contains no hint of sexual engagement, perhaps because the filmmaker thought such material might clash with the unseen but continual presence of her mother, to whom she was close despite the ambivalence embedded in the movie's audiovisual structure, which suggests a longing to break away from her physically and geographically while remaining tied to her psychologically and spiritually. This ambivalence toward parent and homeland extends into the film's exquisite final scene, which presents a lengthy uninterrupted shot of lower Manhattan receding into the distance. This was apparently photographed on a boat of the Staten Island Ferry, a famous tourist attraction that's also a mode of everyday mass transit for city dwellers, making it an ideal metaphor for Akerman's status as both a visitor and a resident in her temporary American abode. Manhattan is her retreat from Brussels and New York Harbor is her retreat from Manhattan, itself an island off the coast much as Akerman is a free-floating offshoot of European society and culture.
As the ending powerfully confirms, News from Home is a richly ambiguous and open-ended achievement, sustaining a delicate mood that's neither upbeat nor downbeat but somewhere in between. Akerman made many important films over the next several decades, and this early masterpiece is a brilliant augury of things to come and an ideal entry point for newcomers to her unique body of work.
Director: Chantal Akerman
Producer: Alain Dahan
Screenplay: Chantal Akerman, using letters by Natalia Akerman
Cinematographer: Babette Mangolte and Jim Asbell
Francine Sandberg With: Chantal Akerman (voiceover)