“Almayer’s Folly,” the great Belgian-born film-artist Chantal Akerman’s first narrative feature in seven years (playing New York for a week at Anthology Film Archives), is a brilliant, wayward mash-up suggesting European colonialism as a madman’s fantasy — namely a white father’s hopeless passion for his mixed race daughter.
The movie’s title, premise, and major characters are taken from Joseph Conrad’s first novel. The dreamlike fluidity was, according to Akerman, inspired by F.W. Murnau’s last film “Tabu” — co-directed with Robert Flaherty and itself a mash-up of documentary and fiction. Conrad’s story is transposed from the 19th-century height of European empire to its mid 20th-century collapse; formerly French Indochina stands in for “Malaysia”; the dialogue is delivered in a medley of languages; the psychology mixes Sigmund Freud and Franz Fanon with elements of the filmmaker’s own family drama.
The daughter of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, Akerman has an acute sense of historical victimhood and Europe’s relation to “otherness.” Significantly, she shifts — or perhaps, corrects — Conrad’s so that the delusional European trader Almayer (Stanilas Merhar, who played another obsessed lover in Akerman’s 2000 gloss on Marcel Proust, “The Captive”) shares the stage with his estranged Malay wife Zahira (Sakhna Oum, appearing as the epitome of colonized reproach) and their daughter Nina (the suitably exotic-looking Aurora Marion, an actress of mixed Greek and African-Belgian descent).
“Jeanne Dielmann,” Akerman’s precocious masterpiece, made when she was 25, infused a particular strain of European art cinema (Antonioni, Bresson) with the discoveries of New York avant-gardists like Andy Warhol and Michael Snow; some three decades and several dozen features, documentaries and video installations, she remains a structural filmmaker, making expressive use of real time, repetition, and what can only be called an “anti-expressive” mise-en-scene. Most of the (non) action is confined to Almayer’s rundown jungle outpost — a lush, swampy landscape that, like Phnom Penh, serves as the all-purpose city, and obviously piqued the filmmaker’s documentarian instincts.
As a filmmaker, Akerman is at once intellectual and intuitive. Her movies signify more than they dramatize and “Almayer’s Folly” rests on three such set pieces, all impressively assured… and risky. (The movie asks to be called “Akerman’s Folie.”) The terrific opening sequence, set in a Cambodian brothel cum nightclub and set to Dean Martin’s lazy mambo “Sway,” makes the filmmaker’s break with Conrad obvious. Introducing an onstage murder, she provides the novel with a new and shocking postscript — delivered before her film recounts, in flashback, a sort of ritualistic version of the Conrad story.
Midway through, Akerman dramatically expands upon something to which the novel only alludes: Nina’s expulsion from the convent boarding school where — thanks to the largess of his European father-in-law (a more successful colonial entrepreneur) — he was able to send her in hopes that after her graduation they would return together to Europe. When the benefactor dies, the tuition dries up and Nina is, as an unseen presence (Akerman herself!) declared no longer “one of us.” The sequence, perhaps ten minutes long, consists of the girl exiting the school, letting down her hair, lighting a cigarette and embarking on a walk through Phnom Penh’s night town that extends into the next day. She returns to Almayer as if in a trance: “My heart is dead.”
The third and final sequence is an even more daring elaboration on Conrad. After Nina leaves her father for her Malay lover, the smuggler-revolutionary Dain (Zac Adriansolo), Akerman gives her leading man an extraordinary close-up (at six and a half minutes, it’s twice as long as a Warhol screen-test). The bereft Almayer stares off camera and into himself, muttering visionary poetry (“The sun is cold, the sea is black”) until the spell is broken by an abrupt cut to the end credits (and a reprise of Dino’s crooning song). “That last shot,” Akerman said with justified satisfaction when “Almayer’s Folly” was screened last winter at the Museum of the Moving Image. “You see him losing his mind.” It’s the capper to a movie made with the excitement and eccentricity of genius.
Read all of J. Hoberman's movie reviews and news at ARTINFO's Movie Journal blog.
Chantal Ackerman's "Almayer's Folly," at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, through August 16 [Event Listing]