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…”).