In the Distance
by Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert
Dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France
What if one of the world’s great film artists released her first major, feature-length narrative in nearly a decade, one based on the writings of a revered author firmly entrenched in the western canon, and no one noticed? This isn’t quite the fate in store for Almayer’s Folly—after all, we’re spending time to talk about it here on the occasion of its New York release, and in a climate where the greatest of films easily go unnoticed, passing in and out of theaters in a week’s time or less, this is something like the status quo. Even so, it’s hard not to feel as though, by merely calling attention to the existence of this singular film, we’re letting our readers in on some kind of secret. Almayer’s should be the movie of the moment. That it is so aggressively not suggests less the ongoing dysfunction of our film culture than perhaps the undefinable, slippery characteristics of Akerman’s work, and those of this ungraspable, confounding film.
A poet of displacement, Chantal Akerman has been alienating audiences for decades, and cinema is all the better for it. Now that her 1975 perception-altering masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles has finally been receiving widespread critical approbation, appearing at number 35 on Sight and Sound’s 2012 list of the greatest films ever made, perhaps more viewers will be more willing to seek out her films, which are finely, obsessively calibrated yet feel impulsive and spontaneous, works of shifting forms set in inalterable landscapes. An artist who has never felt completely comfortable with fixed notions of identity, whether in terms of sexuality, religion, or nationality, Akerman has made films about people who are split from themselves, dissociated from their own bodies, estranged from their own families and cities, using shots of wildly extended duration to emphasize a character’s isolation from herself and environment. Her films are just as omnivorous in form, often incorporating fiction, documentary, and tropes of installation art, sometimes in the same sequences.
In the seventies, these films were blatantly personal: 1974’s Je tu il elle and 1978’s Les rendez-vous d’Anna—the former starring Akerman herself as a lost woman stuck in a cycle of obsessive compulsive behavior who has an unexpected, unemotional affair with a truck driver en route to meeting her estranged girlfriend, and the latter about a filmmaker having anonymous encounters while traveling through Europe on tour for her latest film—felt unmistakably autobiographical, while News from Home (1976) consisted of voiceover of the director reading personal letters written to her by her mother while Akerman lived in New York, all accompanied by extended shots of the city. In these structural films, as in Jeanne Dielman, a woman’s alienation from her own body is expressed in some form of stultifying routine; even in her less clearly autobiographical films in the coming years, Akerman has continued to investigate isolation, geography, and obsession, in such work as her superlative Proust adaptation La Captive (2000) and her documentary about Mexican immigrants From the Other Side (2002), and they’ve grown increasingly expansive. Almayer’s Folly, adapted from the 1895 debut novel by Joseph Conrad, and set in the lush jungles of Southeast Asia is her most sweeping and far-flung, though it tempers any possibility of exoticism thanks to its rigorously controlled perspective.
A lush yet fragmented tale of colonialism, one could mistake it for the work of Claire Denis if not for the more hushed, deliberate camerawork (where Denis is sensual and loose, Akerman’s rigor betrays her continued allegiance to alternative narrative forms). The film stars Stanislas Merhar (the fatal obsessive from La Captive) as Almayer, a Dutch trader long living in Malaysia whose attempts to control the (geographical and sexual) fate of his grown, mixed-race daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion), leads to his ultimate disillusionment and ruin. Of course it’s far more complicated than that, but Akerman takes a pared-down approach that both simplifies and enriches what might have been a convoluted story. She calibrates her film delicately so that the focus feels more on Nina’s escape rather than Almayer’s decline, while at the same time granting Nina autonomy by freeing her from traditional narrative strictures; Akerman tells Conrad’s story of Nina, but in the fashion of a reader skimming the pages, skipping about, stopping to focus intently on a particular detail then jumping off again. Akerman’s personal, peculiar methods of storytelling leave Nina unknowable but never exoticized. She’s in a dialogue with the filmmaker, not the subject of another’s art. A colonialist casualty, she has struggled to find her identity. But like the greatest Akerman heroines, she owns her physicality.
There are myriad visual glories in this languorous film (its images of the deep, dark thickets of the Malaysian jungles are vivid and textured in ways that Gauguin could only dream of), but a pair of jaw-dropping long takes stand out, and they’re the last two images. They are the resolution of Almayer and Nina’s escalating conflicts, which are at once familial, racial, sexual, and geographical. The first, an incredibly complex shot takes us to the edge of a river, from where Nina and her lover Daïn plan to escape—the meticulous choreography of the actors, the camera, and an approaching boat turns the sequence into an oddly affecting tango with nature, one with high emotional stakes. And then, we have a breakdown, unbroken: Almayer has lost everything, and Akerman, in a moment of simultaneous sympathy and punishment, trains the camera on Merhar’s face as it all but dissolves—for a remarkable amount of time. It’s breathtaking in its concentrated pity.
This epically human image, perhaps one of the greatest shots to ever close a film (it ups the emotional and visual ante of Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’amour closer), is a fitting bookend to the film’s open, in which Akerman’s camera sinuously winds through a crowd at a thatched roof bar to eventually witness the vicious stabbing of a singer in a lounge act. The murderer drags the body offstage, and the handful of frightened backup dancers follow suit. One girl continues dancing, almost as if she’s in a trance. Framed by the canned tropical backdrop and harshly lit from the front, it’s as if we’re, for a moment, in David Lynch’s South Pacific, an impression only reinforced when she steps towards the camera and sings blankly, beauteously at the audience. Keep in mind, that over the extended duration of this sequence, we’re not introduced to characters, the reason for the murder is left opaque for the moment, and the girl’s (who turns out to be Nina) song to her viewers is a leap into artifice most films wouldn’t be comfortable attempting, even at their finale. That this is Akerman’s opening gambit should suggest for those who haven’t experienced her work what kind of artisit she is, and what kind of film experience Almayer’s Folly can be best categorized as. It’s as technically virtuosic as it is emotionally resonant, a work of literature come to vibrant life with none of the hallmarks of “authentic” adaptation. In other words, it’s another example of the essentiality of Chantal Akerman.