Friday Editor’s Pick: Almayer’s Folly (2011)

by on December 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Jan 6 at 7:00* at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
*Director Chantal Akerman in-person; followed by opening night reception


The new year has proved rather dry in the repertory realm, but Museum of the Moving Image serves up a hearty smorgasbord of new international cinema, “First Look,” running Jan 6-15. The showcase – curated by Dennis Lim, Rachael Rakes, and David Schwartz – features many New York premieres and in-person appearances. Keep attuned to Moving Image Source, which will run feature articles on all of the films. We certainly hope this becomes a regular staple of MOMI programming.


Darren Hughes on Akerman’s long-anticipated return to feature-filmmaking, for MUBI:

When discussing Almayer’s Folly, Chantal Akerman actively resists crediting the source material. Joseph Conrad’s first novel is set in Malaysia at the end of the 19th century and is a grotesque portrait of a young Dutch trader driven to madness by his own foolishness and avarice. A contemporary, sympathetic reading of the novel might commend it for its critique of the dehumanizing tendencies of colonialism, both on the colonized and the colonizer, but Akerman goes a few steps further. The film is less an adaptation than a loose, dream-like reimagining of its central conflict between a European man, his Asian wife, and their mixed-race daughter. Like Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which foregrounds the racist assumptions in Jane Eyre by giving life and a history to Charlotte Bronte’s exotic “madwoman in the attic,” Akerman rebalances the weight of Conrad’s narrative and in doing so finds—surprisingly, perhaps—more sympathy for everyone involved.
Almayer’s Folly begs comparisons with La captive (2000), Akerman’s adaptation of Proust. Both turn brief literary passages into central visual motifs: a bathtub scene in Proust, for example, and two young lovers hiding beneath a thick patch of fronds in Conrad. But Akerman is working in a different mode here. She seems invigorated by this new-found approach to shooting, which takes the lessons learned from her recent documentary work and applies it, for the first time, to fiction filmmaking.


Gabe Klinger for Cinemascope:

Liberally adapted from Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly is Chantal Akerman’s most satisfying fictional feature since La captive. Like that earlier film, which mined from Proust, it boils down its richly detailed source to a few austere gestures that balance the cross-cultural impulse of her recent documentary work (De l’autre côté comes to mind) with her better-known European narratives. There’s not much in the way of plot, but rather a lot of emotive intensity in the mise en scène that suggests, while at the same time eluding, the deeper literary structure of Conrad’s story.
Akerman shot on location in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, although the setting, like the time, is only a minor part of its spare construction. (The characters make reference to their being in Malaysia, where Conrad’s novel was set.) Avoiding touristic or conventionally beautiful views to instead focus on a landscape of shiny, floating bodies (Marion’s is particularly pleasing), Almayer’s Folly powerfully confirms John Ford’s maxim that the most interesting thing in the world is the human face. Akerman has invoked Murnau in the press notes, and the film certainly captures something of the wistful opulence of Tabu, while also suggesting Joseph Cornell’s avant-garde masterpiece Rose Hobart in the way it presents lost glances, fleeting movements, and deliberately slowed-down environments.

Fernando Croce for The House Next Door:

In what is easily the most eye-grabbing introductory sequence so far in the [Toronto film] festival, an extended tracking shot follows a man into a nightclub where a lounge lizard mimes a Dean Martin chanson before a row of swaying, sequin-studded dancers; a knifing ensues, and the one girl left onstage afterward approaches the camera for a close-up and launches into a grave aria in Latin. Fortunately, Chantal Akerman’s very loose modernization of Joseph Conrad’s first novel lives up to the humid mystery of its opening with a stylistic rigor that finds the Belgian filmmaker—directing her first non-documentary feature in seven years—in top insinuating form. As she charts the dilemmas and gestures of an European trader Almayer (Stanislas Mehar) and his “mixed-blood” daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion), Akerman’s decision to take Conrad’s 19th-century, Malaysia-set story to modern-day Cambodia without acknowledging the changes comes to strike less as an eccentric gesture than as a purposeful extension of the narrative’s inquiries into cultural identity and colonial uprooting. Still, the film works most evocatively not as a visualization of a literary source, but as a companion piece to Akerman’s 2000 masterpiece La Captive, another tale of obsessive drives hitting like tropical maladies. A work of engulfing jungles and rivers, vehement and incantatory speeches, and piercing female gazes in front of and behind the camera.



Hughes also transcribes conversations he and Daniel Kasman had with Akerman for the MUBI Notebook:

At what point in your process do you decide a scene or sequence is going to be a long take? For example, that marvelous scene of Nina smoking under the tree. The camera dollies back and she talks to Daïn for five unbroken minutes…

It comes from the set and is totally improvised. For the scene you mention, I was thinking of breaking it up, showing some of him and some of her, but then I wondered if that was totally necessary. It would have cut the relationship. I didn’t prepare anything; usually I prepare a lot but with this film I didn’t even know what I was going to shoot the next day. After two or three days I felt like I had to make the film in a kind of freedom that I’ve never had, more the way I do my documentaries. I was writing to a friend, “Oh my God, I’m taking a big risk, but if it works it will be great.” It was very risky.
When you shoot a film like Là-bas yourself on digital, you can have a lot of freedom but now you’re shooting on 35mm in a jungle…

I had such a good crew. The guy doing the image and the guy who did the sound were from my documentaries. They were all so into it. For example, while we were rehearsing that tracking shot of Almayer in front of the river, we set up the focus so that he’d stop here and there. Then when we shot, Stanlislas did something totally different. He never stopped at the same moment, so you know the guy doing the tracking shot and the focus-puller were so much with him, and it was such a challenge for everybody. It was so exciting. Each shot was an adventure.
The film certainly feels that way. Some sequences have a profound sense of depth—the shots in the room with the river behind the house and the curtains blowing—and then you have sequences with no depth, shot in the densest foliage, no space, and everything’s in your face. This visual flow of the film seems very organic and natural.

That’s what I tried to do. I said it was risky but I had fun doing it. To work like this was such pleasure. To have that challenge with almost every shot made you so alive. When you do it conventionally, you know what you’re doing and you try to do it the best you can. There are always small challenges—the film has to be well shot—but it’s not the same as what we did here.
You made your reputation with very structured . . .

. . . No, I wanted to make something much more fluid.


It’s a mixture. This new style liberated me from what I had been doing. I’m tired of doing the same thing, and I think the film is stronger because of that. There’s more power in the images.



Michael Sicinski for Cargo:

From Sophocles through Freud and Lévi-Strauss, family and blood ties have been understood as the foundation of the social contract, but in recent years some philosophers, Judith Butler in particular, have tried to reconceive kinship from alternate premises. Following Alain Badiou, we could see the expanded family as being one of workers’ solidarity, the sort on display in Le Havre. But there is something deeper, more primal and psychoanalytic churning at the center of Almayer’s Folly – not surprising, given that it is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad text. And for Conrad, of course, racial and national identity is a constitutive wound, a variant of the Lacanian “Real.”


Through langour, halted movement, drunken paralysis, and the sheer physical effort of wading through the dense jungle foliage or negotiating the steep banks of the river, the characters in Almayer’s Folly are stranded in a sort of colonist’s nightmare projection of “the dangerous Orient,” the Dutch East India Company as Samuel Beckett bug-box. Akerman shows the stresses within the family unit as always having been those present among unequal political powers, and gradually allows those power relations to inscribe themselves across raced and gendered bodies. Almayer’s Folly is without a doubt one of the best films of 2011.


Michael Guillén interviews Akerman about her “best work in a decade,” for Fandor:

For me, Almayer’s Folly is a striking departure from your previous work. For someone who has not shot much nature, as you’ve just indicated, I was impressed with Raymond Fromont‘s nature cinematography, particularly all the scenes of the rainforest at night and the sheen of moonlight reflected off water and leaves. It reminded me of the rainforest fantasies of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Can you speak to your decision to shoot so much at night?

Because you can show only what you want to show. When you shoot in the daytime, you see everything. In a way, even though it wasn’t about nature all of the time, or the city, when you filmed the boat at night, it was just a boat with some tree behind it. If I had filmed the boat in the daytime, it would have looked naturalistic and Almayer’s Folly is not a naturalistic film at all.


No, not at all. Again, like Apichatpong’s fantasies, Almayer’s Folly had a dream-like quality about it.

It was totally dream-like and that’s the first time I’ve done something like that. I was so happy to do something different.


Guillén: Another dream-like quality in your film is its depressive weight, its gravitas. Oddly enough, it reminded me of another film I’ve seen here at the Toronto International: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Have you seen Melancholia?

Akerman: Yes, I loved it.


Not that your film and von Trier’s are stylistically the same, but they share the weight of the lost dream.

Yes. Well, but in his film the lost dream is because the world is ending. In Almayer’s Folly it is the character of Almayer that is ending and becoming crazy. But you know what’s interesting? Von Trier and I use the same music for both films, which of course I didn’t know. He uses the song and I use the prelude.
Well, it’s very funny because ―when I speak about those two characters Almayer and Nina―I’m telling you those two characters are inspired by me. And when Lars von Trier has been asked why he makes such interesting films about women, he’s answered that he’s actually speaking about himself but has put women in his stead. For me, both Almayer and Nina are outcasts, just as I am outcast.
In this film Almayer’s Folly even more than my other films because I made the film much more freely. I didn’t know this when I started the film, but my unconscious is speaking to the unconscious of everyone in the audience. But the problem with that is that many people don’t want to have anything to do with their unconscious. That’s why American critics insist, “A man is a man and a woman is a woman.” In my film, Almayer is not like Matt Damon. My film is gender-troubled.



Phil Caldiron, also for The House Next Door:

A kaleidoscopic, compact portrait of one white man’s insanity among the pratfalls of colonial life in the South Pacific, Conrad’s novel ends with a sudden, arbitrary absolution for its pitiful protagonist; Akerman shares none of Conrad’s concerns, and treats the text as a stock from which to pull names, images, and narrative threads in order to weave them into a Denisian tapestry—though unlike Denis, the focus is less on the unraveling of the fabric than on studying the emotional-political forces that arrange the strands into this particular pattern. The guiding idea is a reversal of Conrad’s imperialist and sexist tendencies, one that does not seek to put Akerman in Conrad’s position, but to create a fluid vision of the decay of empire in which the same forces that drive imperialism are laid bare to show how sorely they lack on the human level.


Akerman continues along oppositional lines, frequently pushing the action so deep into foliage or darkness that the film ceases to have any relation to the novel at all and becomes a pure study in its fetid, feverish landscapes. Where La Captive used a taut, dynamic camera to craft a level of Hitchcockian precision that Akerman used to carve into Proust’s memory, here the effect of her numerous tracks is closer to Alain Resnais in the ’70s: a tool for maintaining a continuity across multiple times, spaces, and registers in order to draw a full picture that is strictly cinematic.
When, in the final shot, the camera settles on the face of Stanislas Merhar’s Almayer for what must be five minutes but feels like eternity, Akerman, totally eschewing judgment, achieves something nearly on par with the closing shot of Jeanne Dielman: Here there’s a pure expression of a life fallen apart and the realization that an entire way of looking at the world has been defeated. In sum, a confirmation of a postulation by today’s least literary director: Cinema can be an avenger.


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