New York Film Festival: Dispatch 2

Melissa Anderson on Robert Zemeckis, Chantal Akerman, and Philippe Garrel at the 53rd NYFF

Chantal Akerman, No Home Movie, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Natalia Akerman.

“THE VOID IS MY DOMAIN,” crows French funambulist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) midway through Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, a 3-D recounting of the stuntman’s August 1974 high-wire promenade between the tops of the Twin Towers. Making its world premiere as the opening-night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival, Zemeckis’s extravaganza unquestionably instills, in the climactic scenes devoted to Petit’s extraordinary stunt, awe-inspiring acrophobia; viewers are convinced that they too are 110 stories above Lower Manhattan. Yet by the time this final act gets underway, the movie has long been in free fall: The plunge into the abyss commences immediately, as a Pepé Le Pew–accented and terribly bewigged Gordon-Levitt directly addresses the camera from Lady Liberty’s torch, concluding his blustery audience welcome with perhaps the stalest expression in any language, “C’est la vie.”

Seeking relief from the showboating perpetrated by The Walk’s lead—and to be fair to the usually charming JGL, he, along with everyone else in the cast, was clearly directed to go big—I thought of Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1976), another tribute of sorts to the soaring downtown skyscrapers. This majestic, if doleful, contemplation of New York ends with a haunting shot of the World Trade Center, enshrouded in mist and fog; the image, captured from the Staten Island Ferry as it moves southwest, both salutes the buildings and augurs doom. Akerman’s melancholic city symphony is punctuated by the offscreen voice of the director reading aloud from the increasingly needy and importunate missives sent to her by her mother in Brussels during one of the filmmaker’s earlier stays in New York; nearly forty years later, maman is the star attraction of No Home Movie, Akerman’s tender, at times deliberately agonizing portrait of this supremely enamoring matriarch (who died in 2014).

Chantal Akerman, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), 1968, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 12 minutes 30 seconds.

Much of No Home Movie takes place in octogenarian Natalia Akerman’s apartment in the Belgian capital as Chantal, the elder of her two daughters, flits in and out of the frame, occasionally appearing to be padding around in her jammies. The two women spend a great deal of time in the kitchen—is it the same one that a then-eighteen-year-old Chantal detonated in 1968 in her first short, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town)?—their reminiscences conveying profound affection and esteem for each other. “You were the most beautiful mother. The most beautiful woman,” coos Chantal one night over dinner, recalling how proud she was of Natalia while a schoolgirl. In distilling the filmmaker’s lifelong filial devotion, No Home Movie also intimates the darker, more complex side of that intense attachment. When Chantal, Skyping with Natalia from Oklahoma, tells her mother, “I want to show that there is no distance in the world,” she’s referring not just to collapsed miles and time zones.

Philippe Garrel’s evocatively titled In the Shadow of Women also centers on the claustrophobia engendered by too much intimacy. Married couple Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Coreau) are partners not just in life but work, collaborating on a documentary about Resistance fighters. “Sharing projects together—that’s love,” Manon tells her mother. Forgoing the solemnity that has weighed down previous projects like Frontier of Dawn (2008) and wisely consigning his son, Louis, who’s played the male lead in his last four films, to offscreen narrator, Garrel here shrewdly explores the illusion required to keep a dyad functioning.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

The Walk, which opened the New York Film Festival on September 26, will have a limited release on September 30 before expanding nationwide on October 9. Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie screens October 7 and 8. Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women screens October 6 and 7.