Chantal Akerman’s updated adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Almayer’s Folly, which opens at Anthology Film Archives today, starts off with one of the most elegantly controlled and tense sequences I’ve ever seen. We see an open air night club somewhere in Asia. As random people go in and out, a shadowy figure moves into the frame and ominously enters the club. Akerman then follows the man from behind, slowly, as he makes his way towards a stage where a lounge singer, backed up by some awkward, scantily clad female dancers, lip syncs to Dean Martin’s “Sway.” The man watches the performance for an extended moment. Then, he goes onstage and stabs the singer, dragging the body offscreen. The music stops and the dancers all flee. All, that is, except for one -- a tall Eurasian girl with a distant look in her eyes, who continues her clunky dance as the empty silence gathers around her. A voice offscreen whispers, “Nina. Dain is dead.” The girl stops, and moves into close-up. And suddenly begins singing a religious song, in Latin, looking straight into the camera.
We may not know exactly what just happened, but we’re riveted nonetheless. This is what Chantal Akerman does at her best. She takes a moment and slows it down to such a degree that anything seems possible. Some directors like to hold their shots to give the viewer space and time to contemplate and explore. But Akerman’s not an analyst. She’s a hypnotist. She uses shadow, composition, and sound – just listen to this film sometime, with its mesmeric use of water and rustling reeds, its drifting waves of classical music and timeless pop – to pull us into this wild, twilight world.
Almayer’s Folly is a quiet epic that’s relatively thin on plot: After that opening scene, we go back “some time ago” and see Nina as a young girl. She’s the daughter of Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), a European trader living along a river in East Asia married to Zahira (Sakhna Oum), the adopted daughter of the wealthy tycoon Captain Lingard (Marc Barbe). Almayer’s a broken man, given to quietly moping around his ramshackle home nervously despairing about the state of his affairs and the future of his daughter. (Merhar isn’t the most of charismatic actors, but he lends the character a strange, quiet fidgetiness that serves him well.) He lacks backbone or resolve: Though he adores his daughter and can’t bear to be separated from her, he allows Lingard to take her away to put her in a boarding school closer to civilization.
The novel, though short, is a bit more detailed about the politics circling around the traders and smalltime despots living along the river. (The book takes place in Malaysia; the film seems to keep the setting uncertain.) The film feels like it's going for something more universal: It’s less about the characters’ circumstances and histories and more about a strange existential truth.
Akerman makes Almayer’s nauseating spinelessness palpable during a scene where he and Lingard hunt down Zahira and Nina, who are trying to evade them by hiding amid the foliage alongside the river. Almayer keeps explaining to Lingard why he doesn’t want his daughter to be taken away -- even as he continues to help the wealthier, more powerful man chase her down. The scene is echoed later on, when the older Nina, now having fallen for the charismatic smuggler Dain (Zac Andrianasolo), resists Almayer’s attempts to dissuade her from running away with this clearly dangerous man. Powerless to effect any change in his daughter, Almayer actually helps the two lovers get away. Here is a man, we understand, who has become complicit in his own betrayal and undoing – thanks to fear, greed, cowardice, emotional paralysis, you name it.
But it’s not like anyone else fares any better in the film: The headstrong Nina – well, we’ve already seen in that opening scene what became of her. The bitter, contemptuous Zahira (who, in Conrad’s novel has a far more pronounced role and a fascinating backstory, which, given Akerman’s keen eye for gender dynamics, I’m surprised to see excised) fights back but loses her whole family. (Indeed, she appears to have already lost her soul by the time we first meet her.) Lingard the rich, powerful trader fails in his attempts to give his granddaughter a better life and dies pathetically alone, brooded on by a servant who has already confessed his hatred to him. This is a quiet, deliberate film, but beneath its surfaces runs a fevered despair that’s almost too hard to contemplate: Almayer’s folly echoes our own. To be human, Akerman seems to be saying, is to have things taken away from you.