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Joseph Conrad

The Duellists

Spoiler alert: This is the final shot of the movie.

[Originally published in Argus (Seattle), 1978]

“The Duel” is one of the most mysterious stories Joseph Conrad ever wrote. Ostensibly based in fact, it recounts the bizarre involvement of two career officers in Napoleon’s Grande Armée who, in the first year of the Little Corporal’s reign, become adversaries in a private quarrel no other man—and perhaps only one of the participants—understands.

Feraud, low-born, impetuous, wholly committed to his emperor and a relentless code of honor, consecrates his every energy to defending both. In battle a tiger, off the field of armies he moves from one duel, one test of strength, to another. D’Hubert is a career officer by aristocratic avocation; he meets both advancement and setback with an air of ironical amusement, an aesthete’s sense of form.

Their initial combat is forced upon D’Hubert. Almost accidentally, he emerges from it the victor, and sends his personal surgeon to tend Feraud’s wounds. Feraud demands a rematch, wounds D’Hubert this time, but refuses to call it even. To his annoyance and eventually his horror, D’Hubert realizes that the man intends to pursue the matter to the death.

And so it goes each time fate throws them together—for nearly two decades: from the cosmopolitan coziness of German billets to the icy retreat from Moscow; through the collapse of two Napoleonic regimes, to the dawn of what ought to be D’Hubert’s easy middle age as a country gentleman and doting husband.

This enigmatic tale, missing from most contemporary anthologies of Conrad’s work, provides the basis of an extraordinary film, The Duellists, written by Gerald Vaughn-Hughes and directed by Ridley Scott. It created a sensation at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival exactly one full year ago, but its American distributor has only now got round to releasing it. Indeed, they haven’t so much released it as absentmindedly permitted it to wander off on its own.

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VIFF 2011: Jungle Fever

ALMAYER’S FOLLY

After getting up early and driving for three hours, perhaps the first film you watch in the Vancouver International Film Festival should not be Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, all two-plus hours of it. Akerman is not the liveliest of directors; her style is lengthy staring, to frame a scene and contemplate it with lacerating intensity, as though seeing clearly could be an acid test for truth.

Here, in her first narrative feature in seven years, she takes on Joseph Conrad’s first novel, which unfortunately I have not read; I’m assured that Akerman is wrestling its meaning to the ground, making the novelist’s fiction about a corrupt white colonialist living and dying in Malaysia her own.

In any case, tired as I was, this provocative director’s exploration of cultural, ethnic and gender powerplays held me captive for much of its long running time, though it seemed to me that Akerman’s central issues ran out of steam pretty early on. It’s just that her visualizations are often amazingly rigorous, so rigorous you are mesmerized, almost shamed into sticking out extended scenes which handsomely emphasize white-imperialist-corruption-of-brown-people-at-home-in-nature significance.

The film’s opening dazzles: the camera follows a man into a nightclub, through lights, tables, dancers, to the stage where a slick young stud lip-synchs to Dean Martin’s seductive “Sway with me.” He’s backed by a line of hotties, their hands moving prettily to the beat. Cut, and we see the impassive face of the silhouette who’s been our guide into the club. He watches the performance, a cheapening of Asian beauty, a cultural corruption. Cut, and he’s sliding across the state to knife the singer. Like a curtain, his act moves the body and all but one of the back-up singers off the stage. The remaining woman continues to move her hands as though she’s in a trance, until someone offscreen calls “Nina, Dain’s dead.” It’s as though a Sleeping Beauty has been freed from a curse: this stunning brown woman walks toward the camera and in CU, delivers a gorgeous rendition of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail, true body…”).

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