The letter in ‘Casablanca’ versus the ones in Chantal Akerman’s ‘News from Home’

Posted on November 15, 2018


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BBC Culture’s poll of the 100 best foreign films has given us fodder for many, many columns – so this week, let’s look at one of the female filmmakers on the list. Not that there’s much choice. There are only four women – three-and-a-half, in a sense, for one of them is a co-director (Kátia Lund, who made City of God with Fernando Meirelles). The others are Claire Denis (Beau Travail), Agnès Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7), and the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, represented by Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. It’s one of the most famous “anti-narrative” films of all time. The “plot” hinges on sex (the protagonist is a sex worker) and murder. But Akerman’s real subject is the devastating monotony of her protagonist’s life: making beds, doing dishes, peeling potatoes. In the clip below, the director says: “I made this film to give all these actions [that are typically devalued] a life on film.”

We’ll get to Jeanne Dielman in a future column, but for now, let’s look at Akerman’s News from Home (1977), one of the most unusual documentaries of all time. As in Jeanne Dielman, the “plot” suggests vivid – even sentimental – drama. Over voiceovers of letters from her mother in Brussels (read out by Akerman), we get scenes of New York City, which was Akerman’s home in the early 1970s. Sample letter: “Dear child. I received your letter and hope you will write often. I hope you won’t stay away too long and that you’ve found a job by now… Everything is fine here, but Sylviane is home with the flu. My blood pressure is low. I’m on medication for it. Today is my birthday. I feel sad. It’s quiet at the shop… Write to me soon about your work, about New York, about everything. Lots of love from the three of us. Your loving mother.

Continued at the link above.

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