By Albertine Fox, originally published by The MUFF Society.
This short essay is a personal response to My Mother Laughs, a text-image book by the Belgian filmmaker and artist Chantal Akerman. I first read the text in French, a few years after Akerman’s suicide, and a year after my own mother’s death, and then in English translation. I looked at the images in the French edition, and then later in the English edition, where they are sometimes smaller in size or in a different position on the page. The permutations between one work and another, one image and another, and one life and another are endless.
One could say that Chantal Akerman’s cinema starts at the end and works backwards, unbuilding, de-structuring and destroying in order to build. Emptying the frame of human form, resisting normalising orders, disrupting domestic space, and defying ‘home movie’ conventions form part of Akerman’s search for another way to live, beyond categorising forces that stifle, freeze, and fix. Self-deprecating humour is a crucial part of Akerman’s creative palette. My Mother Laughs is a personal text-image book by the Belgian artist that was first published in France in 2013. In this book, humour functions as a low-key but persistent disruption that enables the narrator to express her gender nonconformity on her own terms. Akerman also meshes family photographs with fictional stills from her films and installations, prising open her prose with a second story told through images, allowing for the possibility of alternative kinship formations that confuse the imaginary with the real.
The second image to appear in My Mother Laughs also appears in the display of stills in her installation Maniac Shadows (2013) that was made while Akerman was writing the book. The image shows a chair and a table, on which an object resembling an iPad lies. Behind the table is a window covered by white blinds. The left blind has become awkwardly caught on the window and looks twisted. In the video triptych in Maniac Shadows, the same image appears but the focus is on the right-hand blind which has twisted entirely.
In My Mother Laughs, the image of the caught blind appears below the narrator’s description of her mother looking out of the window and seeing the garden bench, which has overturned in the wind. Beneath the image of the caught blind, the narrator switches the focus to herself, noting that unlike her mother she hates waiting for spring to arrive (p.5). The words ‘She likes that’, above the image, are followed by ‘But I can’t stand it’, below the image, which is suffocated by the closeness of the text on the page. By contrast, in the French version, there is a blank space below the same image, like a silence that accents the distance between mother and daughter (p.13). The pictorial traces of the mother-daughter bond are choreographed differently in translation but the feelings of absence and suffocation overlap. Whilst the mother looks forward to springtime, the daughter writes: ‘I’m stuck in winter with its dark, heavy clouds that look like they’ll stay forever’, and then ‘I feel like it’s the end but it’s not the end’, then ‘There’s nowhere I feel at home.’ The twisted blind is a minor disruption on the page, an awkward presence, like having something in your eye but nothing is there, just a faint scratch that skews your vision slightly.
The twisted blind is one of those ‘small insignificant events’ the narrator writes about, such as the phone ringing or the lift getting stuck, that makes her feel as though she is ‘a person who has something to do even when nothing is happening.’ Not fitting in to family life, not feeling at ease with coupledom, getting the wrong end of the stick, looking scruffy, and being messy are recurrent self-portraits in the book that I consider to be intimately tied to the narrator’s expressions of her queerness. My Mother Laughs crystallises the dissonances at the heart of Akerman’s negotiation of her identity as a queer woman, a Jewish woman, a daughter with a sick mother, a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, a lover, a woman with bipolar, a sister, an aunt, and a multimedia artist, with a sobriety I had not perceived in her work before. The need to hide, retreat, withdraw and be alone is tied to the need to belong while not-belonging, the need to have a life, while not knowing how to make one. The lift getting stuck and the blind getting caught are echoed by the narrator getting psychically stuck. She describes being ‘stuck in this state’ of living her life as ‘an old child’, a child who was ‘born old’ and who ‘never became an adult’.
In September 2019, a panel discussion was held at King’s College London to celebrate Daniella Shreir’s English translation of My Mother Laughs (Silver Press, 2019). It followed a screening of Blow Up My Town, Akerman’s first film, a short shot in black and white and made in 1968, a year of political upheaval and civil unrest. Incidentally, both works were brought into the same space in a 2016 exhibition of Akerman’s installation, Maniac Shadows in Paris. A film of Akerman reading the opening lines of My Mother Laughs was displayed on a monitor in a low, cavernous space in the centre of the gallery. In one of the upstairs rooms, a film of Blow Up My Town was projected without its soundtrack. The gravelly vocal tones of Akerman’s older 63-year-old self drifted upstairs to mix with the transgressive gestures of her younger 18-year-old self. Consequently, Blow Up My Town’s new soundtrack became the sound of My Mother Laughs, producing a muddling of linear time: the sounds of adulthood and old age, emanating from downstairs, floated upstairs to accompany the silent, rebellious gestures of an adolescent girl (Akerman, aged 18, plays the girl). The temporal disordering brought about by the spatial (dis)organisation of this exhibition drew me to think more about Kathryn Bond Stockton’s notion of ‘growing sideways’. Growing sideways challenges the trajectory of verticality that is required for ‘growing up’ according to the script of heteronormativity. In Blow Up My Town and My Mother Laughs there is a desire, both wilful and unwilful, to impede – even jubilantly destroy – the linear trajectory of growing up towards maturity.
The references to laughter throughout My Mother Laughs resonate with the uncontrollable sound of canned laughter on the original soundtrack of Blow Up My Town, when the girl (played by Akerman) smears cream all over her face. Jean-Michel Frodon has suggested that the laughter indicates the presence of another person in the room, a ‘subliminal other’ (172). Could it be Claire, the girl (her lover?) to whom the film is dedicated? Perhaps it’s the laughter of Akerman herself, or perhaps it’s the sound of the camera laughing, or the spectator. The unlocatable sound of excessive laughter adds to the sense of placelessness confirmed by the ‘Go Home’ Smurf sign on the kitchen door. Akerman is both outsider and insider at the same time. She tapes up the doors and windows, sealing herself inside a space that she is making impermeable, while proceeding to destroy that space with a gesture that screams out for connection, intimacy, and permeability.
The explosive presence of a female other laughing, then almost choking and whimpering, intensifies the process of making space for other desires by violently disrupting the silence. The film can be read as a love letter to another girl: Akerman races against the vertical movement of the lift, she pierces the body of the letter she has received (from Claire?) by hanging it on the cupboard handle, a symbolic gesture to enshrine their love, before destroying the domestic interior, a space associated with the oppressive constraints of heteronormative family life. She sets the letter alight and allows its soft crackles to accompany her final moments, before the explosion occurs and the camera cuts to black. The spectator is left to imagine the vertical apartment block crashing down, spreading out through its collapse. During the film, two symbolic cuts are performed by her body, one via the blackness of her hair and the other via the blackness of her shiny raincoat when she walks towards the camera, pre-empting the final black hole of death. These blacked out images simulate cuts that remain purposefully fluid. The black screen constitutes not the absence of an image but the fullness of its silence, destabilising vision and plunging the spectator into an experience of self-loss. This slide into blackness takes us into a resonant space of ambiguity that is also a heavy space that painfully evokes the black hole of silence enveloping her mother’s traumatic past.
Along with the images of blackness, the mirror in Blow Up My Town distorts visible space, which appears almost elastic. When the girl blows herself up, the camera denies us a direct encounter with her body, deflecting our focus by filming her suicide through the reflective surface of the mirror. Her body cannot be framed as a unified whole. She is both inside and outside the frame, indeterminate. Blow Up My Town’s self-shattering performs the dissipation of the self-possessed ‘I’. It feels like the end, but I experience it as a sign of new life. The visible image is survived by the sound of Akerman’s voice that finishes by reading aloud the end credits. I hear the female voice of this récit (this ‘story’) as the leftover of a queer survival that must unbuild and undo, bringing verticality crashing down, in order to fashion a bearable path, one that bends sideways, downwards and backwards, waiting, listening and feeling. In Akerman’s life and work, the end is never quite the end. It is always left unfinished, with the door slightly ajar. She invites us into the sideways space she has generously made for us. Like a peculiarly subversive yet comforting shaft of light, over there. It beckons those who can’t quite find their place.
Benjamin Bateman’s concept of queer survival has inspired some of my ideas on My Mother Laughs. When the sovereign ‘I’ comes undone a ‘mutual permeability’ makes itself felt, allowing an ‘unsealed’, non-normative approach to survival to take shape. Bateman suggests that ‘the threats to the “I’s” survival’ are ‘sources of its aliveness and spaces where what is “wrong” with it – what is off-kilter, unhinged, unhappy, unfulfilled – can enjoy some room, relaxation, and respectful reception’ (12–13). It seems to me that this idea of queer survival can be traced backwards from Akerman’s profoundly moving last film, No Home Movie (2015), through Maniac Shadows and My Mother Laughs, to the micro revolt of Blow Up My Town. In My Mother Laughs, I believe that the ‘troubled’ narrative of self is just one performance among others. My sense is that Akerman is forever reworking the negative threat of self-loss, highlighted by the elusive narrative voice that flits between mother and daughter, into a dynamic mode of queer survival.
Like Blow Up My Town, My Mother Laughs ends abruptly, but it does so peacefully and serenely, with two shadows: amorphous forms that are both seen and unseen, as plural non-forms. The shadows cannot be filled in, exposed, or resolved. They just exist, merged, like friendly giants beaming with a productive opacity. Bateman’s description of queer survival as an ‘identity in shambles’ is an apt way to end this essay, so as not to end, ‘where shambles indicates not a state of disrepair but an awkward walk, a shuffle, that lives present and future in sideways movements as if drunk on the excess of temporality brimming within and over any particular now’ (14). My Mother Laughs helps us to hear this muffled rhythm — a force of artistic creation and social disruption that leaves a trail of new life in its wake.
Bateman, Benjamin, The Modernist Art of Queer Survival (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Frodon, Jean-Michel, ‘Saute ma ville’ in Chantal Akerman, Chantal Akerman: Autoportrait en cinéaste (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou/ Cahiers du cinéma, 2004).
Stockton, Kathryn Bond, The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2009).
 The speakers were Ros Murray (KCL), Jenny Chamarette (QMUL), Albertine Fox (Bristol), Frances Morgan (author of the Afterword, My Mother Laughs), Sarah Shin (Silver Press) and it was chaired by Clara Bradbury-Rance (KCL).
Written by Albertine Fox, Lecturer in French Film, University of Bristol, UK