“For me the worst thing about mothers is that they grow old and then they die,” Juliette Binoche tells William Hurt in Chantal Akerman’s romantic comedy A Couch in New York (1996). In disguise, Hurt’s uptight Manhattan shrink has just unloaded on Binoche’s character, a good-natured Parisian subletter who has unwittingly appropriated his psychotherapy business. His monologue is a bracingly raw account of his feelings of guilt and distance vis-à-vis his mother, and it sticks out starkly within what is likely the director’s most easygoing and commercial film. This being the relatively breezy comedy that it is, however, Binoche, an enthusiastic new recruit to the Freudian cause, is on hand to put him at ease: “It’s only normal to love your mother,” she tells him, “and there’s no reason to be afraid of committing incest.”
Akerman’s rich and complicated relationship with her own mother, Nelly, is a central, well-documented part of her filmography. Her career was loosely bookended by two masterpieces that explicitly take up the mother-daughter relationship, News From Home (1977) and No Home Movie (2016), but Nelly’s persona—even mythos—seeps into films as tonally disparate as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, Bruxelles 1080 (1975), Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), Golden Eighties (1986), and Histoires d’Amerique (1989). Yet even within this uncommonly mother-fixated oeuvre, I find there to be something unexpected and especially poignant about Hurt’s confession. Materializing as it does almost out of nowhere into a movie in which a good number of important plot points are catalyzed by a golden retriever, its intrusion feels not unlike the return of the repressed. Auteurism, for better or worse, often brings with it an element of amateur psychoanalysis. Filmmakers are celebrated for their mastery, but often loved for their compulsions; it’s instances of the latter more than anything else that betray the presence of a mortal consciousness behind the forbidding industrial apparatus. Yet in the eagerness to contrive a rapport with the artist and a more personal connection to the work, one is liable to overlook the many complicating factors in the imagined relationship or overestimate its transparency.
The drive to analyze the artist and the limitations of doing so are brought to the fore in reading Akerman’s novella-length memoir My Mother Laughs, now available in an English translation by Corina Copp. Sharing both its subject matter and a melancholically valedictory quality with No Home Movie, the book chronicles Akerman’s processing of the end of her mother’s life, which would coincide with the waning years of her own (Nelly Akerman died in 2014, about a year before Chantal’s suicide). There’s a morbid fascination to works produced by artists nearing death—doubly so in the case of victims of suicide—a sense of eavesdropping on a private correspondence with the beyond. Such a push-pull attraction certainly applies to My Mother Laughs, but Akerman writes with a disarming frankness that renders such questions simultaneously inevitable and beside the point. Some readers will certainly pick up Akerman’s memoir in hope of gleaning some insight into its author’s tragic death, but the book’s bluntness makes such an endeavor feel more than faintly ridiculous, as when she writes: “I have survived everything to date, and I’ve often wanted to kill myself. But I told myself I could not do this to my mother. Later, when she’s not here anymore.”
Like Akerman’s films, My Mother Laughs is centered on the material, even banal, actualities of day-to-day life, albeit with a hyperconsciousness of passing time that carries with it a razor-sharp poignancy. Composed in short, intense fragments, the book moves between a record of Akerman’s life split between multiple cities—most notably New York, where she taught at City College, and her mother’s home in Brussels—and intimate personal disclosure, each delivered in an unaffected style that largely prioritizes clarity of expression over rhetorical gymnastics. At first glance, it can all seem like a somewhat diaristic endeavor, a way of documenting one’s experiences and feelings while perhaps blowing off a bit of steam; though as the layers of patterning and resonance begin to accumulate one begins to sense more strongly both Akerman’s idiosyncratic command of narrative architecture. And if the act of writing is supposed to relieve some tension, a good deal of that tension resists exorcism. As Akerman writes early on, “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.”
The “her” in question is, of course, Akerman’s mother, and My Mother Laughs delves into the mother-daughter relationship without the sentimentality that often accompanies narratives of parents facing death. Rather than catharsis and resolution, the dominant feeling is the quietly crushing sensation of drifting subtly but inexorably apart. Early in the book, Akerman fixates on her mother’s broken shoulder, which appears in No Home Movie, whose inability to heal becomes a stark embodiment of the unidirectional encroachment of mortality. Rather than strike an elegiac note, Akerman directly confronts the generational tensions, particularly as regards her queerness and Jewishness, two major fault lines that span her career. “She will never let go,” Akerman writes when her mother suggests she put on some makeup, “Until her dying day she’ll be saying this kind of thing to me.” Nelly’s experience in the Holocaust—she survived Auschwitz—also weighs heavily upon her daughter. “I had had enough of these survivor stories,” she writes. But later, she concedes, “Everything makes me think about it again, even the words and things that might make you think of something else.”
This free associative quality, compulsive as it might be, is a major part of what makes Akerman’s svelte memoir quietly expansive. The book’s fragmented style allows for a persistent sense of slippage—between different times and places, but also relationships. Akerman’s relationship with her mother finds a fraught reflection in an intense, short-lived romance with a much younger woman who the neighbors mistake for her daughter, much to the author’s torment. After a quicksilver courtship (via Facebook’s Messenger feature) the relationship breaks bad, and Akerman mercilessly chronicles its disintegration as her frustrated partner becomes emotionally and physically abusive. Even so, she’s not without sympathy: “I made you a home, she said one day, and it was true and I hadn’t even noticed,” she concedes, an admission that adds yet another layer of poignancy to the loaded title of her final film.
According to Amy Taubin’s account in Artforum of a reading that Akerman performed in 2013, the author characterized My Mother Laughs as being “circular, like the womb.” As will be unsurprising to any reader of the book, it’s a description marked by painfully sharp self-awareness. Even among Akerman’s restless movement and itinerant intellect, there’s a sense of repetition, of return—not necessarily to an idea of home, but to some center of gravity. My Mother Laughs can be a heart-wrenching read—it indicates that the final years of Akerman’s life were not happy ones—but it’s ultimately not a miserable one. This can be chalked up, at least in part, to the act of writing itself, not as a release but as the possibility, ever furtive, of a deeper and more genuine communication. The text’s slippage takes place also between voices, with Akerman’s words transitioning unmarked into those of the other (always female) key figures in the book: her mother, sister, lovers, etc. As Akerman remarks, looking back upon her debris of her romance, “it was the writing I loved.”