Directed By: Chantal Akerman
Written By: Akerman, based on the novel by Joseph Conrad
Starring: Stanislas Merhar, Aurora Marion, Mar Barbe, Zac Andrianasolo, Sakhna Oum, and Solida Chan.
Director of Photography: Raymond Fromont, Editor: Claire Atheron
The key moment in Almayer’s Folly is one of luminescent beauty, though oddly without any emotion. Set in the Cambodian jungle, our protagonist Almayer watches as a boat, lavished in bright colors floats across a black river toward his dock. Writer and director Chantal Akerman immediately distances this moment from any tension by revealing in a third person voice over the reason for their visit, as well as the outcome, none of which we see. Akerman thus allows the camera to view the moment in its tranquility.
Since her debut feature Jeanne Dielman became the most widely cited and critically acclaimed film by a female director ever made, Akerman has often dipped into very different works, often changing and revising style over the years. But she has always been a formalist filmmaker with an assured vision, which comes across in the intellectually demanding Almayer’s Folly, a new work loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novel exploring post-colonial tensions in Southeast Asia. It’s an allegorical story between a father and a daughter and between whiteness and blackness, one that slowly and rigorously examines a world in which the physical borders between both spaces and individuals are still quite intact.
Beginning at the end of the narrative and working her way backwards, Almayer’s Folly tells the story of Almayer and his daughter Nina (only a minor character in the Conrad novel, now almost the protagonist). The family lives up away from the large cityscapes of Cambodia (the film is set in the present), along the jungle, where Almayer attempts to control the landscape he has made his home, though also his prison. In one scene, Almayer rips out the jungle as it grows into his house, attempting to prevent his own feral downfall (Stanislas Merhar’s eyes have something untamed to them).
Early in the film, Almayer’s father visits him and forces him to send the mixed-raced Nina to a white school in the city. We return to her years later, her white satin dress clashing with her dark skinned body, smoking cigarettes but actively hating herself for doing so. As Almayer has become part of but hates the jungle culture, Nina has become part of but hates white culture. The two inevitably clash through their hatred of themselves and each other.
Akerman’s approach to the film though is something almost impossible to describe. It’s not the elemental approach of Claire Denis’s White Material (another film that explores post-colonial and post-familial relationships), as Akerman is too exact with her framing, minimal in her cutting, and expressive with her color palette (which have often a saturated digital look). There’s something deathly about the entire film, from its use of the opening notes of Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde (and Dean Martin pop songs) to the pure blackness of the water at night. Nina herself appears like a ghost in one frame as she glides along the water on the front of a boat, a blueish glow to her character. Akerman constantly finds new ways to express the rifts between these characters (though really these cultures)—she’s a director of pictorial depth; her characters don’t move much in her frames, though she uses space to convey their meaning.
However, I never found Akerman’s approach affecting, so when the last third of the film approaches more emotional territory, I understood the psychology of the various characters involved though the fights and goodbyes meant less for me than the further consequence of the narrative. But that is not to call Almayer’s Folly unengaging—it’s riveting filmmaking and a film that will reward repeated viewings, traversing its intensely intellectual portrayals of the rifts between cultures. We often speak today about our borderless digital culture, but Akerman suggests that these differences will always be there.