Letters Home (1986)

Two actresses share a minimalist stage as they perform the written correspondences from the late American poet-writer Sylvia Plath to her mother in this wholly intimate endeavour from Akerman. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,207

Dir. Chantal Akerman
1986 | Belgium/France | Drama | 104 mins | 1.33:1 | French
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some mature themes

Cast: Coralie Seyrig, Delphine Seyrig
Plot: Keeping the original theatrical mise-en-scene, the film features Delphine Seyrig and her niece Coralie Seyrig reciting Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother directly to the audience as though we were the recipients of these private missives
Awards: –
Source: Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mother-Daughter Relationship; Depression
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Finally watching a Chantal Akerman work for the first time, and here we have Letters Home from the mid-‘80s.  I’ve to admit that I thought this was going to be uninteresting—after all, how exciting can it be if the entire film centres on two actresses reading out letters on a minimalist stage? 

As if trying to disavow my initial assumption from the get-go, Akerman proved that she was not merely recording a performance, but wildly using film language (powerful close-ups, breaking the fourth wall, etc.) to transform its theatrical artifice into cinema. 

Letters Home is fundamentally based on a stage play by Leiman Goldemberg, who based her text on the late American poet-writer Sylvia Plath’s correspondences with her mother. 

Clinically depressed for years and ultimately committing suicide at the young age of 30, Sylvia’s tortuous life and love-hate relationship with her concerned mother is given startling intimacy by Coralie Seyrig, and her real-life aunt Delphine Seyrig, respectively, who each performs the lines of Sylvia’s diary entries. 

“I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I can’t see my existence in a wry, humourous light.”

Akerman particularly alternates the older Seyrig’s lines so that she would not just express herself as Sylvia’s mom, but also speak her daughter’s words and thoughts.  Occasionally, the lines interfere with each other, as one voice overpowers the other; at other times, there’s a lyrical poetry to their ‘conversations’ or duet-style monologuing. 

All these are brilliant and draw us psychologically closer to the lives of these troubled characters, and in a way also shows the ‘telepathic’ connection between mother and daughter—or so they wished they had. 

Also masterful is Akerman’s careful calibration of sound and music that suggests not just an elusive physical offscreen space (e.g. traffic, car horns) that treats the drama as reductively performative, but how this contrasts and immerses us into a rich inner psychological world (e.g. children’s jingles, classical music, songs from the period) that reflects Sylvia’s complicated state of mind—the joys that are far and few between, and her disabling sorrow and ennui.

Grade: A-

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