Saturday, February 11, 2017
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2014), for example -- begin with an incident and then flash back for the rest of the movie to explain it. So Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly begins with the camera following a Malaysian man into a nightclub where another man is lip-syncing to Dean Martin's version of the song "Sway" as a group of women dances behind him. Suddenly the man who entered the club is on stage stabbing the lip-syncer. The music breaks off and all of the dancers flee the stage except one, who continues to perform the hula-like hand movements as if nothing had happened. We hear a voice call out, "Nina! Nina!" but she continues in her trance-like state for a while until she stops and begins to sing Mozart's setting of "Ave Verum Corpus" as the camera holds on her in closeup. The movie then flashes back to reveal that Nina (Aurora Marion) is the daughter of the European Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) and a Malaysian woman, Zahira (Sakhna Oum). Almayer has come to Malaysia in search of his fortune -- he has heard of a gold mine ripe for the taking. Zahira and Nina live with him in a house by the river until one day his fellow European fortune-hunter, Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé), arrives to take Nina to the city to be educated: Almayer wants her to have the benefits and privileges of a European lady. Though Zahira and Nina flee into the jungle, Almayer and Lingard capture the girl. Nina is intensely unhappy at the school, scorned by the European girls, and when Lingard, who has been paying her tuition for Almayer, dies, she is expelled. She wanders the streets of the unnamed Malaysian city (the movie was actually filmed in Cambodia) and finally returns to Almayer's home. There she's seduced by Dain (Zac Andriansolo), a shady young man who is supposedly helping Almayer find his fortune. Almayer recognizes his defeat and allows Nina and Dain to leave together. Unlike Wilder and the Coens, Akerman doesn't return to the opening scene at the film's end, but instead leaves us with two of her characteristic long takes: The first shows Almayer, Nina, and Dain arriving at a sandbar where the river meets the sea to await the arrival of the boat that will take the two young people away; the camera lingers in a long shot as the boat arrives and Nina and Dain swim out to it, then Almayer and his servant, Chen (Solida Chan), push off into the river for their return home. The second long take is a closeup of the haggard, obviously very ill Almayer as he sits brooding in his decaying home, with Chen standing out of focus in the background. At the beginning of this take, Almayer says, "Tomorrow, I would have forgotten," a sentence that he repeats at the end after we watch the sun play across his face -- moving much more swiftly than it would in actuality -- and he talks about how the sun is cold and the river is black. By now, we have realized that the lip-syncer was Dain and that Chen was his assassin. As for Almayer, we can only assume that he has died. Almayer's Folly, which Akerman loosely adapted from the early Joseph Conrad novel, is clearly a fable about the tragedy of colonialism, but she's not intent on laboring that topic. It's as much an attempt to prod the viewer into contemplating the mystery of character and identity as her more celebrated Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) was, and by using less radical variations on the same techniques -- extended takes, minimized action -- she used in that film. Akerman developed a compelling and identifiable style, but there is a point at which style becomes mannerism. (We all want to be thought "stylish," and none of us want to be thought "mannered.") I think Almayer's Folly nears that point but doesn't fully reach it, largely because of the compelling performance of Merhar as Almayer, and because of Akerman's use of the setting, with the help of Raymond Fromont's cinematography and Claire Atheron's editing. She also makes fine ironic use of the Dean Martin song and the Mozart hymn, as well as the only non-diegetic music in the film, interludes filled with the erotic longing of Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. Almayer's Folly was barely released in the States, and it's probably caviar to the general, but I saw it on Filmstruck.