Writing in Tongues: Chantal Akerman's News from Home

By Cerne, Adriana | Journal of European Studies, June-September 2002 | Go to article overview

Writing in Tongues: Chantal Akerman's News from Home


Cerne, Adriana, Journal of European Studies


My mother wrote me love letters, and that was marvelous. With her own words [...] my mother didn't learn to write, she quit school at 11, [...] She writes as she can, she formulates her feelings in an unsophisticated way, they really reflect her. If she were more sophisticated, she wouldn't have dared to ask me all the time 'When are you coming back? You know very well that we love you, you know that we miss you'. She wouldn't have dared, she would've said it by way of a thousand 'detours'. But she's not sophisticated, she used the words that she had, [...]

Chantal Akerman, Camera Obscura (1)

J'aime vous ecrire; je parle vous, je cause avec vous

(I like to write you; I speak to you, I talk with you)

Marie de Sevigne, in a letter to her daughter (2)

'Love letters to the Mother'

In an essay written by Brenda Longfellow called 'Love letters to the Mother: the work of Chantal Akerman' she allows an analogous connection between films and letter-writing to surface through an analysis of four of Akerman's films that deal with the mother-daughter relationship, each in different ways. (3) In grouping these films under the heading of 'love-letters', from a daughter to a mother, an enquiry into a type of correspondence of the feminine emerges out of the site of a film practice. However, only one of the four films deals directly with the mother's writing: her 'love letters' to her daughter. News From Home (1976) by Chantal Akerman is the filmic response to those letters, and in corresponding allows a culturally negated maternal 'voice' to emerge within the visible and audible sphere of film.

At a talk given by Chantal Akerman at the Tate Modern Gallery on 8 March 2002, she spoke about the fact that before she became a filmmaker she was 'not interested in visual things [...] I wanted to write'. If we consider Helene Cixous' phrase: 'woman must write herself [...] bring women to writing' (4) we come closer to seeing how the film, as a 'love-letter' (as writing) appears to take up residence in the place where the Woman/Mother must be brought to live (in writing, in language). The filmmaker in living at the level of the making of the film (having first written it) addresses a co-responding, yet unspeakable, love for the feminine (within patriarchy) as a billetdoux to the mother as self.

The formal structure of the film as it plays with the formal structure of the letter allows a channel of communication to break through conventions of reading and writing: twisting threads of meaning in and out of subjectivity. As I watch this film, however, what comes to greet me is another story; the sight of the foreign city of New York in the film brings with it -- as if it were a palimpsest -- another journey, one that had occurred in Dresden, where another letter from another mother had been revisited by her own daughter. It was the story of Freud's famous patient 'Dora' (real name Ida Bauer 1882-1945).

Freud's treatment of 'Dora' in 1900 formed the basis of his longest case history of a woman. 'Dora's' father, Philip, brought her to Freud as a teenager, while she was suffering from 'tussis nervosa, aphonia, depression, and taedium vitae'. She has long since captured the sympathy of many of Freud's readers, particularly feminists. Helene Cixous saw in 'Dora' 'a very beautiful feminine homosexuality, a love for woman that is astounding'.

In Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester's book Freud's Women they suggest that this 'homosexuality' was

triumphantly kept secret from Freud, as she led him away from her secret love for a woman, allowing him to concentrate his energies and intelligence on a busy masculine network of deceiving and humiliating relationships. Her rapid departure from Freud's treatment [she herself broke off the treatment] is viewed as her triumph, and perhaps her only way out of being recoded back into the normalizing and Oedipal ways with which Freud was unconsciously complicit. …

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