The unbearable news came one day before No Home Movie was scheduled to have its US premiere in the New York Film Festival: Chantal Akerman was dead at age 65, apparently by suicide. She had been in correspondence with the festival only weeks before, a visibly shaken Kent Jones and Amy Taubin explained to the audience on the night of the film’s first screening. She was proud of No Home Movie and had been looking forward to showing it to her friends in New York. And then, for reasons you could neither avoid imagining nor decently pretend to comprehend, she could not go on.
No single film, event, or personality can sum up an enterprise as inherently various as the New York Film Festival—an annual hodgepodge of available products and personal tastes, shaped into something resembling coherence by sheer curatorial will—but the experience of watching No Home Movie in the absence of its maker was as close to definitive as it’s possible to get. Not that the works in the festival were all as indifferent to commercial goals as No Home Movie (this was the year of Steve Jobs and Bridge of Spies) or as formally austere. Styles ranged from the 3-D fakery of The Walk (unfortunately) to the lushness of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin and Todd Haynes’s Carol to the maximalist, anything-can-happen methods of Arnaud Desplechin (in the one unmistakable masterpiece on the main slate, My Golden Days) and Miguel Gomes (who dreamed up the grandest, most audacious cinematic contraption to break into view, the three-part Arabian Nights). Still, I will remember the 53rd New York Film Festival as the year of No Home Movie: because of the shock, because the selections turned out to be uncommonly full of mourning, and because so many of the established authors (though not Akerman) seemed to have stopped pushing ahead in their art, or (for better and worse) had turned inward.
To take just three examples: A family copes with the terminal illness of its matriarch in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre. In Heart of a Dog, which was presented apart from the main slate, Laurie Anderson meditates (I believe that’s the precise word) on the deaths, both long ago and recent, of friends (including her dog Lolabelle), her mother, and Lou Reed. Cemetery of Splendour—an allegory of moribund democracy in Thailand—is set in one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s haunted jungles, where an improbable military hospital has taken over an old elementary school built on an ancient graveyard. These are very different pictures—Anderson’s a brilliantly inventive handmade collage of home movies, drawings, and reenactments, with a gently knowing voice-over; Moretti’s a satisfying conventional drama, enlivened (though not disrupted) by a film-within-a-film premise; and Weerasethakul’s an attenuated version of the work this admirable writer-director has made in the past—but they are united in their sense of loss, which had its most intense expression at the festival in No Home Movie.