The setting is 19th Century Malaysia but the location on screen is 21st Century Cambodia, specifically Phnom Penh. The narrative is chronologically fragmented so the first scene of the film seems self contained and mysterious, even after the end of the film. The film starts with a murder of a singer who mouths to Dean Martin’s Sway while dancers swerve dully behind him. After his death, all the singers leave in fright except one who remains. A beautiful girl (Aurora Marion) who continues grooving to the same rhythm despite the commotion that unfurls around her. That is until she stops and then sings a song that seems to come from someplace else, somewhere inside a private well of pain and anguish. She sings Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus while facing the camera. This opening, one of the most electrifying in recent memory, has that all can be said about the spell cast by Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly.
The titular book is of course Joseph Conrad’s first novel. While I have not read the book in question, the film’s fragmented sense of time, the colonial setting and heaviness of feeling resembles quite a few of his books, from Nostromo to Lord Jim. Akerman’s adaptation is deliberately non specific. At various times, the film seems to be set at different periods of the 20th Century. We have settlers like Almayer(Stanislas Merhar) and Captain Linghard (Marc Barbé) who are more like ghosts from the world of post-national merchant settlers and traders that throng Conrad’s universe. The world of Nina, Almayer’s daughter is harder to lock to a particular time period, but she is of a great remove from Almayer and Linghard and even Daïn (Zac Andrianasolo), her lover. This sense of the film not belonging to a particular time allows Akerman to keep all her cards to herself. The film’s story is simultaneously immediate and distant.
An important theme of the plot of the film is treasure. Almayer’s sojourn in the forests of Malaysia is driven by a search for a goldmine that will allow him to return to Europe with full glory. This fantasy, encouraged and enabled by Captain Linghard extends to his Nina, his half-Malay daughter. Linghard insists his daughter, who Almayer regards as his treasure, to study at a boarding house for Europeans in the capital city. This education is offered to her so that she could be presentable on Almayer’s glorious return home. This decision to separate Nina from the forest environment of her childhood and Almayer from his daughter leads to the tragedy of the film. When the older Nina returns from school, she’s outfitted with an education at great distance from the life around her, completely alienated from her surroundings and bereft of the little love she had for her father. As played by Stanislas Merhar, Almayer is basically ageless, remaining the same, living with the same illusions even after his daughter returns. This tension played out in tropical surroundings creates an atmosphere of gradual stagnation as Almayer pursues his quest for lost treasure and Nina seeks to find her own way away from her life.
There’s no question that Almayer’s Folly bathes with a vitality and freedom rare in contemporary cinema. Chantal Akerman of course has made some of the best films of the world for more than thirty years, mixing fiction films with documentaries, video installations and experimental work. Almayer’s Folly is her first fictional film for more than six years and a stirring return to 35mm cinema. The freedom has much to do with the way Akerman works with her actors and her crew. Merhar’s slow spiral into madness and uncertainty is vividly realized in the powerful scene where he and Linghard moves through thatches of fields as he searches for Nina, who is hidden by her mother. This montage shifts from day to night, from Almayer voicing protest at separating from his daughter, dislike for his surroundings to finally succumbing to letting her go.
Akerman had previously stated that she preferred urban over pastoral settings owing to the great presence of lines in the former. You wouldn’t be able to tell in this film, delighting as it does in the tangled woods, the overwhelming cover of the trees and the canals that surround the settlement of Almayer’s trading post. The scenes in Phnom Penh are reduced to specific images. Linghard’s Chinese servant Chen standing at the end of a corridor, checking in on Nina’s life at the school, which we never see ourselves and the haunting shot of Nina gazing outside through barred windows. The city comes when Nina walks by herself away from the school. The camera emphasizes her walk, which she tells Daïn was specifically taught to her by white teachers. Nina is a prisoner at her former school but she remains trapped in the jungle as well.
Akerman has always shown a greater range of cinematic influences than other European film-makers of her generation. In addition to the influence of Godard, the avant garde cinema of Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol and Michael Snow bear heavily on her works. Most notably in the manner in which many of the key elements of the film – visual, aural and narrative – find expression in particular images. Almayer’s Folly is full of these moments, right from the opening. The final shot is one of the most unforgettable moments in recent film. The textures of light and shadow over the actor’s face create something palpable and alive.