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…”).
Talk about a killer beginning. Then we plunge into the backstory: how the white Almayer dreamed of Cambodian goldmines and returning rich to Europe with his mixed-blood daughter Nina (Aurora Marion), whom he loves beyond reason. Not so her mother, whom he finds so implacably Other as to be not quite human. Almayer hates everything about his tropical home: he keeps trying to tear away the vines that grow inexorably over his hut, and the river “burns and shines.”
We first see the child Nina swimming happily in that burning, shining river, a true child of nature. But Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) and his mentor Captain Lingard (Marc Bebe) purpose to send her to a strict boarding school so that she can become “one of us.” Nina’s mother carries her deeper and deeper into thick jungle and dark river, trying to save her from the strictures and artifice—”Be quiet … walk slower”—of a white man’s education.
The girl grows up to be a stunning beauty, but her soul is dead. During a long, ritual walk leftward, away from the school, Nina goes deep into the “native quarter,” bathed in an almost sepulchral blue light. Back home, she and her mother sit around Almayer’s hut, lacerating the decaying man with their dark accusing gazes. And then Nina chooses to leave with Dain, a handsome young ne’er-do-well. But Dain, though a glowing brown alternative to her father’s corpselike pallor, is just another way for Nina to lose touch with her true roots.
Akerman documents all the stations in the Via Dolorosa of Almayer and Nina, West and East, man and woman, with long, static, sometimes hieratic shots and cryptic conversations. Some of these sequences are shatteringly beautiful: during a terrific, nocturnal storm, Almayer stands erect in a dugout, literally leaning into the wind, in pursuit of the natural child maimed by too much taming; Almayer ceremonially turning his head rightward, away from the sight of his daughter and her lover swimming (in real time) out to a getaway ship, then turning leftward, as the camera pivots just enough to hold on the couple at sea.
Perhaps Almayer’s Folly begins with some kind of ambiguous salvation for Nina—she gets her voice back, but the once-free spirit is singing in Latin, and it’s a Western hymn about Christ’s crucifixion. I’m told that in Conrad it’s Almayer who achieves absolution, but Akerman spares him nothing. She holds on his dissolute face, slack with drink and madness, gaunt and unshaved, for many minutes. His head falls to his shoulder and his heavy eyelids sink and open, sink again. It’s like looking at the desert landscape of Western / masculine aggrandizement, the antithesis of Nina’s glowing CU at the beginning.
Almayer’s Folly is too simple a tale in the end, lacking in ambiguities. But all its crucifixions are blessed by the application of a most righteous directorial eye.