:: Article

Bodies in spaces: On Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs

By Lucy Holt.

Chantal Akerman, My Mother Laughs, translated by Daniella Shreir (Silver Press, 2019)

Filmmaker Chantal Akerman and her dying mother are anticipating dinner one evening. They are having sole goujons, something which they are particularly excited about, because, according to her mother, “the goujons taste much more delicate than normal sole”.  It’s no real surprise that Akerman’s memoir My Mother Laughs (2013) pays particular attention to the delicate and the fragmented, the slight but most tender parts, deliberately prized from the rest of the flesh. But then, it isn’t about surprises at all.

Available in English translation, for the first time in the UK, from London-based publisher Silver Press, My Mother Laughs is primarily about illness and how it takes up spaces, and how the bodies which inhabit these spaces interact. Akerman wrote My Mother Laughs in her mother’s flat in Brussels, after she returned from New York to care for her, towards the end of her life. It was written in and amongst the events it documents. It is a piece of auto-fiction, though it leans most heavily towards the ‘auto’ side of things.

Akerman once said that she wouldn’t find it a compliment to have someone tell her that when watching one of her films they didn’t notice time passing. She’d rather have her audience experience the duration of every moment.[1] Likewise, My Mother Laughs isn’t the sort of text you ‘devour’ or ‘gulp down’ in one sitting. Instead it creeps along in a series of anecdotes, which circle around an assumed, unspoken something. The moments accumulate at the pace moments should. Sometimes you feel like the narrative could be approaching a denouement, but then text will pause, draw breath, and drop a pin somewhere else entirely, starting off along a new path.

As Eileen Myles writes in her newly commissioned introduction, “this document as written is only stops and starts, but such addicting ones”. They carry you along, these stops and starts, under a self-perpetuating energy like Akerman’s mother, who we are told is still alive simply because she doesn’t want to die yet. We’re roughly moving forwards in time but also moving through a cluster of moments; a family wedding in Mexico, a reunion with a younger girlfriend in Zone 2 of London (“An area where everything looked the same”), the initial meeting of that girlfriend in an airport, dinners, a different reunion with a different girlfriend.

“I always say one thing at a time” writes Akerman, but this statement has a double meaning. We can imagine her using the idiom, an idiom so often reached for under pressure, but it’s true of the text too. Yes, she does say one thing at a time, one thing after another, though not always in order.

Myles again, attempting to describe the style says: “One thinks screenplay too though no screenplay looks like this (but it feels like this)”. It’s a cliché, of course, to say that her writing is like her filmmaking, but let’s just run with that for a bit. Critics have made much of Akerman’s mastery of a front-facing camera shot. In literary terms it might be interpreted as facing things squarely, taking them all in. However, unlike a fixed camera left to run, memoir is selective. The writer can choose what to bring in and what to leave out.

Alongside Akerman and her mother, periphery figures move in and out of the text’s field of vision. We glimpse them out of the corner of our eye as they perform the duties of care. Akerman’s own sister, Patricia the cleaner, Clara the carer and Andrée the neighbour (who is interesting and cooks sole goujons delightfully) act as alternative versions of daughterhood. Akerman is well aware she isn’t particularly sufficient in the role as care-giver, instead she characterises herself as both perma-child and aloof, neither particularly useful in a crisis nor particularly generous with the details of her life lived elsewhere. It is easy to forget while reading that Akerman, the daughter in the text, and the Akerman, the writer, are nearly both sixty years old. Referring to her mother she says: “The child is her. It’s me. And now I’m old[…]an old child doesn’t have children”.

North American edition, translated Corinna Copp (The Song Cave, 2019)

In Camera Obscura 100, Patricia White writes: “Memory is a central concern of Akerman’s ouvre—the ways bodies are imprinted by routines, the stories and silences that run through generations”.[2] And so, in My Mother Laughs, we view events through Akerman’s (child’s) eyes as she watches other women perform the necessary routines. Her mother asks what they’ll eat tomorrow when her other daughter, who has been doing the cooking, has left. For Akerman the implication is clear: in the role of attending to her mother’s suffering, she is quite useless.

There’s a telling moment of exchange recalled with her father from decades earlier: “When I asked my dad why he was so keen on me getting married he said at least if I ever got ill I’d have someone to look after me”. In Akerman’s unsentimental prose, the language of familial love is the same as the language of literal care. Having someone present and attending to you is almost the same as being well. Almost. We see this when her mother is well enough to sit in the living room and watch TV, close enough to the front door to open it and chat to her visitors as if to demonstrate she’s still “alive”.

A similar image comes up again later: “She’s not waiting for death. She doesn’t want death to arrive. […] Anyway, she wouldn’t want to leave her apartment”. Death, like love, is something that might arrive—simply turn up one day uninvited.

When physical intimacy does creep in it’s couched with regret: “One day I said to my uncle, maybe if mother hadn’t always stroked me and held me tight against her body things might have turned out differently”. In the context, we assume she’s talking about her homosexuality though, knowing Akerman’s lightness with double-meanings, her comment opens up a world of possibilities. When she reflects on her decision to reunite with a bad girlfriend—a bad girlfriend who is notably left out of the rituals of family gatherings—she says “I should never have opened the door”. The care that’s invited in isn’t always the right kind, but bodies passing over thresholds, bodies in intimacy, that’s what keeps everything moving.

And things do move—we pass seamlessly through the places and non-places of trauma and sickness: “I’d seen her on Skype from New York, she looked like she didn’t recognise me anymore”. Screens, flights and departure lounges are abundant. Being there, the act of simply turning up, is undermined by distance, be it family weddings, relationship issues, or film trips to Japan.

Akerman’s narration, which oscillates between monologue and reported speech, often hovering ambiguously between the two, is fluent in the rhythms of understatement. There’s an off-handedness which becomes the ally of those dealing with profound trauma, but who really don’t want a fuss. The sort of linguistic acrobatics which momentarily reveal suffering but manage to pull themselves together before they arrive at the end of the sentence, smiling. For instance: “She hurts all over but her hair has grown back. It’s a miracle”.

 Such turns of phrase become disruptive in the world of mental and physical illness. In the account of a violent situation with her ex-girlfriend, C., who traps her inside their shared bedroom she reports, “The day before or maybe on a different day she’d said to me, you’re not leaving this room until you respond […] Then afterwards she said it was just a turn of phrase”. Language itself seems to morph under the conditions of Akerman’s own manic depression. “When I’m ill I can speak any language, especially the ones I’ve forgotten like Hebrew. It suddenly comes back to me and I can read it as if I’d never forgotten it.”  We’re reminded that this text is a translation, and translation is a complex thing, itself a question of bodies (of text) in intimacy. Translator Daniella Shreir ensures that when a metaphor comes along, it is given room to do the things it needs to do.

Of course, there are times when language fails entirely. At one point Akerman concedes: “No, there was nothing that could be said to a mother”.

At another point, when she attempts to piece together the tendrils of the early days of a relationship forged online, she says “It says this conversation no longer exists and Facebook has made a fool of me”. Again, the non-place of the internet comes between Akerman and the things she’s trying to retrace.

Director Joanna Hogg has a tightly woven relationship with Akerman’s work, having curated a season of her films with Adam Roberts under their A Nos Amours project.[3] Hogg’s recent feature film The Souvenir dwells on many of the same themes of self-narration and disconnection as Akerman. There’s a strained mother-daughter relationship. There are romantic relationships which get nasty. Like Akerman, Hogg constructs The Souvenir as a series of vivid, complicated recollections. As viewers, we often feel like we’re missing out on details, and our narrator is deeply unreliable. But the overall effect is richer because of that. Of course, souvenir is also the French word for memory.

In an essay entitled ‘Souvenirs de Chantal’, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis describes this place which Akerman inhabits as “the porous boundaries between lived experience and fiction”.[4] She then proceeds to reminisce about her time spent with Akerman. She recalls reading Ma mere rit, the original Fench text of My Mother Laughs. She decides “a lot of Chantal’s ouvre requires multiple screenings and readings”.

Towards the end (in both senses), the text begins to exhaust itself. Each fresh recollection is more minute, more tangential, more avoidant of the inevitable. Instead of detailing the moment of death or its aftermath, Akerman chooses to end the text with a moment of love and forgetting (or perhaps, love through forgetting). She turns away from her mother entirely (remember: “there is nothing that could be said to a mother”). Having reunited with M., her first lost love, she remarks: “We loved each other, we went our separate ways. I don’t remember why and now we love each other”.

Again, the delicacy of text and the precision of Shreir’s translation comes through. The implied “again” on the end of “we love each other” is left unspoken, reminding us that things are always being re-traced and revised. The very final image is of Akerman and M.’s shadows, “in love”, as they walk together along the pavement. Two bodies, in intimacy, indirectly looked upon.


[1] Rosen, M., In Her Own Time: An Interview with Chantal Akerman (2004) <https://www.artforum.com/print/200404/in-her-own-time-an-interview-with-chantal-akerman-6572> [accessed 10 September 2019].

[2]  White, P., ‘Camera Obscura and Chantal Akerman’, Camera Obscura 100, 34.1, (2019), 1-10 (p. 4).

[3] White, P., ‘Camera Obscura and Chantal Akerman’, Camera Obscura 100, 34.1, (2019), 1-10 (p. 6).

[4] Flitterman-Lewis, S., ‘Souvenirs de Chantal’, Camera Obscura 100, 34.1, (2019), 75-88 (p. 75).


Lucy Holt is a writer based in London. She contributes to this is tomorrow, The Double Negative and Corridor8 and has had work published in Ache Magazine and by Pariah Press and The Poetry Business. She’s studying MA Writing at the Royal College of Art.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 23rd, 2019.