Chantal Akerman's 'My Mother Laughs'

“Why are you filming me?” - Natalia Akerman, mother
“I film everybody, mother. Of course, you especially more than others.” - Chantal Akerman, daughter

 

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Published in the form of a memoir, blending image and text, My Mother Laughs is the last book written by the Belgian artist and director Chantal Akerman before she committed suicide in 2015. This book revisits Akerman’s relationship with her mother, a recurring interest throughout her entire oeuvre and a lesson in sensitivity, in awareness of what really matters. The book reads like the subtitles in a movie, shopping lists, a sigh, a groan and this is how the emotion is conveyed, these mundane acts act as both a chore and an anchor between the mother and the daughter. We invite you to delve into Akerman’s world, and in doing so deepen the sensitivity towards your own.

My Mother Laughs can be viewed as the sister-book of Akerman’s ‘No Home Movie’, a documentary film recording conversations between Chantal and her mother, using handheld cameras and her own phone which makes the image muddy and not very well lit. To a certain extent, ‘No Home Movie’ is Akerman’s continuation of her exploration of female identity, domesticity, gender, but this film feels more personal and intimate. Similar to ‘Jeanne Dielman’, which premiered at Cannes and brought her worldwide attention, Akerman’s camera observes the routine of a private and an invisible woman, this time, a housewife, who happens to be her own mother, a survivor of Auschwitz. One can say that in Akerman’s shots of dedramatized spaces (apartments etc) not much happens, well, except for a poignant reflective encounter between a daughter and a mother. The effects of trauma and mother-daughter relations are paramount to the aesthetic process for Akerman. The core of My Mother Laughs, as well as her films such as ‘Letters Home’ and ‘No Home Movie’, is our observation at the gaze of the daughter at the mother, so organic, so heartfelt, that we feel almost as if we are intruding. Akarman’s space is that of the interior monologue as much as the outer, and the quotidian life of a woman between four walls. In an interview, Akerman confesses that routines and repetitive patterns are like little rituals that do not turn the life of the woman into a humdrum but rather solidifies and grounds it. Akerman records much of ‘No Home Movie’ by placing her small camera on a surface in her mother’s apartment, becoming as if, an innocent piece of furniture which ultimately serves her idea of filmography to record the everyday life. The same can be said about My Mother Laughs, written in a confessional, unembellished, and matter-of-fact way, does not hold back from telling us about her experiences with her mother, both personal and non-personal.

In the first few pages, Akerman recounts how her mum sleeps in her reclining armchair, how much she gets excited about eating goujons, how she was quite flexible but hard of hearing.

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‘Now she’s in the kitchen eating her cornflakes.’
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In this poignant but warm memoir, reminiscent to Roland Barthes’s The Mourning Diary, we are transported to Chantal Akerman’s childhood, familial relationships and heartbreaks.
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‘It is quick and silent, its purpose is sacred. In its stealth, in its forthcomingness, My Mother Laughs resembles a prayer’, writes Eileen Myles to the introduction of the Silver Press Edition.

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