Troubled Water

Amy Taubin on Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly

Chantal Akerman, Almayer's Folly, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes.

CHANTAL AKERMAN’S ALMAYER’S FOLLY opens with a deep night image of the sea, the beacons of barely visible boats playing across the water. That the image is very, very dark and accompanied by the yearning yet ominous prelude to Tristan and Isolde suggests that it should be read metaphorically. It is as much an expression of the surging energy of the unconscious as it is a first glimpse of the actual location of most of the film—a remote riverfront trading outpost in a Southeast Asian country. But practically speaking, this nightscape, barely decipherable on the French DVD (there is no subtitled DVD available), makes it imperative to see the film projected on 35 mm, as it is currently being shown at Anthology Film Archives through August 16. 

Akerman’s last major fiction film, La Captive (2000), concludes with a similarly nearly blacked-out image of water. The two films have other elements in common. Both are modernized and very free adaptations of novels. La Captive is derived from the Albertine sections of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Almayer’s Folly from Joseph Conrad’s debut novel of the same name. The films share a lead actor, Stanislas Merhar, who, in both, plays a man obsessed to no avail with a dark-haired, enigmatic young woman. What makes Almayer’s Folly different from any other Akerman film, however, is that it is set in the natural world, indeed, in a jungle resistant to human intervention, especially by colonizing white men.

After the somber opening image, we are abruptly placed in a garishly lit beachfront karaoke club—all hot pink neon and powder-blue decor. On stage, a man is miming Dean Martin’s cheesy, catchy cover of “Sway,” his movements and those of the female chorus line behind him a grotesque, erotic parody of the barely perceptible undulating currents of the water in the opening shot. Almost before we can grasp what is happening, a man leaps from the audience onto the stage and twists a knife into the singer’s heart. The dancers scatter, except for one, who, as if in a trance, continues her slow rhumba until she hears someone call from offstage, “Nina, Dain is dead,” whereupon she steps toward the camera and sings in a raw but nearly pitch-perfect voice Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” in its entirety.

The worlds of Akerman’s films, including the musicals, have been distinguished by their detailed, nearly ethnographic realism. La Captive moved toward expressionism—a darker, more fevered depiction of subjectivity. Almayer’s Folly goes even further in this direction. It is basically a narrative about overwhelming depression and loss of self culminating in madness. All but stranded in the Malaysian jungle, Almayer (Merhar) waits for his partner Lingard (Marc Barbe) to return with the buried treasure he has been promised as payment for marrying Lingard’s adopted Malaysian daughter. In time, Almayer and his wife have a daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion), whom he loves as much as he hates her mother. Lingard, still promising riches, separates Nina from Almayer, insisting that she go to a European school in the city. But Lingard dies, and with no one to pay her tuition, Nina returns to Almayer, though not, however, for long. Her ticket back to the city is Dain (Zac Andriansolo), an insurgent wanted by the police, whom Almayer hires in another futile attempt to find the gold. Instead Dain takes off with Nina, leaving Almayer to die alone. The fate of Nina and Dain has already been foretold in the opening scene.

If the story sounds overwrought, the film is not. Akerman’s control of the expressive elements, particularly the performances, which are at once subdued and theatrical, and the choreography of the long takes, in which actors move through the encroaching jungle, are exceptional, and all the more so for having been achieved on what was clearly a small budget. The film was shot in Cambodia standing in for Malaysia, which caused a few critics, when Almayer’s Folly premiered last year in Venice, to get overly picky about the supposed Malaysians speaking Khmer and Khmer-accented French. Akerman explained that what some saw as the carelessness of a European filmmaker (i.e., a colonialist) was a way of reinforcing the concept that everyone in the film is uprooted and from elsewhere (in other words, making the best of production limitation). She will be on hand at Anthology at the 6:30 PM screening on Thursday to discuss these and other more interesting issues, such as how this film not only elaborates on her recent documentaries about diaspora and displacement, but also points toward a more expressionist mode of fiction film.

Almayer’s Folly runs through Thursday, August 16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.