Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly
Originally published in Screen Machine, Issue 2.
‘Poetry of the Everyday’
Almayer’s Folly may be a literary adaptation, based on Joseph Conrad’s 1895 debut novel, but it is very much a Chantal Akerman film. Spanning a little over two hours, Almayer’s Folly fits perfectly within the Belgian filmmaker’s prolific oeuvre: the plot is secondary to the riverside setting, solemn mood and docile tone. Utilising her trademark techniques— extended takes, jarring monologues, strategic framing and intensely drawn-out close-ups—Akerman has created a haunting film that is purposefully and intensely dreamlike.
Continuing her uncanny ability to present textured and considered representations of women, Almayer’s Folly demands contemplative, emotional reactions from the audience by establishing a subtle yet prevalent friction between the mundane and momentous. Three set pieces that furnish the beginning, middle and end of the film exemplify Akerman’s style and success as a transgressive filmmaker investigating power structures.
The opening sequence sees an uncertain, unsettling man wander along a dark strip that is artificially lit by neon and inhabited by partygoers. He drifts into a bar while the comforting crooning of Dean Martin’s “Sway” sounds. Deathly action transpires; intrigue is mustered. A voice whispers, “Nina,” the name heard again and again until she takes full frame. With a face at once angelic and hardened, before a man-made sunset, Nina (Aurora Marion) begins to sing a Mozart aria directly to us. Her presence is sorrowful, earnest, disturbing; she conjures a sense of displacement, grief and disillusionment.
Here we intuitively enter Akerman’s filmic universe; the sadness seeping from Nina’s song and stunningly exotic features gripped my heart while revealing the film’s purposeful sense of delivery and intended pace. Tightly focusing on Nina for an extended period, utilising the “materiality of her performers”,1 Akerman makes it impossible to shy away and we are required to feel. It is here that Akerman, diverging from the original text, sources a thread more closely affiliated with her theoretical interests. Nina —a woman grieving, lost, displaced—is established as the narrative nucleus. This sequence haunts the rest of the film as Akerman places an emphasis on mood and the performative body—Nina’s gestures and movements—over plot or dialogue.
This, the film’s start, is in fact the story’s end. Through the course of sensuous, spiralling flashbacks, we witness occidental merchant Kasper Almayer’s (Stanislas Merhar) downfall. From his loveless marriage of convenience to a local woman was born a daughter of mixed-race, Nina, who forms his sole purpose in life. His once grand aspirations of acquiring wealth and treasure have been overthrown; his subsequent, pitiful, obsessive attempts to hold onto his daughter are his lifelong folly.
In the lush surrounds of 1950s Malaysia (another alteration to the original text), rich memories unravel, depicting how young Nina was sent by Almayer’s colonialist father-in-law, Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé), to a convent boarding school amidst promises of a future harmonious life in Europe. After years of ridicule and humiliation during her education as a consequence of her mixed race, Nina returns a hardened shell of an adult human. Rather than neatly slotting into Almayer’s dreams of an optimistic familial reconciliation, Nina, appalled by everything her senseless father stands for, soon contemptuously flees his grasp with militant Daïn (Zac Andrianasolo).
But this is not a traditional tale of star-crossed runaways. Nor is it merely a reconstruction of history, a retrospective retelling of colonialist failures. Even though the closing sequence is a tight close up of Almayer’s anguish, this film isn’t solely about male hubris. Complementing the opening scene, this final footage, extending beyond five minutes, once again demonstrates the power of the performative as well as Akerman’s penchant for visual symmetry. This final scene closes the circle between father and daughter, while together these intense close-ups bookend what was, for me, the most powerful and telling sequence of the film:
Nina exits the gate of the school. She walks. For roughly ten minutes, we follow her, beside but apart. She smokes a cigarette. She lets her hair down. She urinates. She crosses roads, treads paths and wanders past, through the lives of the local people. She breathes. She is free and trapped, escaping and displaced, ensnared and unshackled. She strides through twilight into the light of the following day.
Given her acclaimed status, many interesting statements orbit around the criticism of Akerman’s films: her obsessive focus on the everyday, literal movements of women are a comment on feminism and make Akerman a feminist aesthete (however she rejects the totality limiting titles such as “feminist filmmaker”2); Ivone Marguiles has remarked on how her repetitive, minimal, meticulous and articulate style provokes writers to “reproduce her descriptiveness”; she has also been coined “cinema’s greatest poet of the act of walking”.3 All of these grand claims reverberate in the corners of this mundane yet powerful sequence.
Punctuating the middle of the film is a lengthy walking scene that takes place after Nina’s benefactor dies and she is expelled from her boarding school. Like the beginning where we feel Nina’s melancholy through the fragility of her voice and the emotion of her exotic eyes, at this midway
point, while she walks, we can inhale her honestly, openly, earnestly. Continuing Akerman’s dashing ode to the graceful gesture of walking, the camera slowly tracks with Nina as she aimlessly inhabits space while unconsciously hiding. Here Nina walks on the fringes of society, boundaries both self-created and imposed upon her. Without a place, she is the ultimate outsider; exiled and on the run—a nomad—she walks through the night into the day (echoing Toute une Nuit and Nuit et jour). This sequence demonstrates Akerman’s specific and deliberate ability to compose the dramatic and the quotidian evenly, what Ivone Marguiles calls the “hyperrealist everyday”. These in-between moments, presented minimally and monotonally, are central to Akerman’s work; the extended magic of the mundane ensures, and deserves, reflection.
Andrew Klevan has noted that it is “rare to see a genuine concern with the everyday in film”, making an exception of the hyperreal work of Akerman who puts these motions front and centre where they heed attention.4 Accordingly, she is praised for her power to induce meaning through presenting nothing and everything. Procuring formal influence from the likes of Godard, Warhol and Snow, Akerman has made this form her own, particularly via her “hyperrealist” focus on the everyday movements of women, as demonstrated in her tour de force Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
Likewise, in this hypnotising sequence, Akerman’s constant themes of alienation and emotional detachment are felt between paces. Here, walking, Nina is tied to no domestic space — she is de-sexualised yet feminine, isolated from a domestic space but silently dependent on it. While she is drawn back to the harrowing concept of “home”—a smothering patriarchal situation she flees—in this moment she is one with no one and everyone. Eventually, upon returning to her father, her few words confirm what this meandering, mundane and silent adventure has already told us: her “heart is dead”.
In her statement of intent about Almayer’s Folly, Akerman noted: “I would like to treat this story with simplicity, a father, a mother, a girl, a young man in love with her”.5 In her own way, where the minimal is never lacking and the simple never sparse, Akerman has succeeded. In Almayer’s Folly, she has created a lush, dreamlike work where the audience walk beside the characters and through their world. Boiling the plot down to a dramatically intense and stark story, without completely overthrowing the evocative, grand themes of existentialism and patriarchy, Akerman has remained faithful to the power of the everyday and her singular body of work.
¹ Ivone Marguiles, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, Durham: Duke University Press 1996.
² Chantal Akerman in a BBC interview: “When people ask me if I am a feminist film maker, I reply I am a woman and I also make films.”
³ Adrian Martin, “Chantal Akerman: Walking Woman“,Unspoken Cinema, 1998.
⁴ Andrew Klevan, Disclosure of the Everyday: Undramatic Achievement in Narrative Film, Trowbridge: Flick Books 2000.
⁵ Chantal Akerman, “Almayer’s Folly: Synopsis and Statement of Intent”, Lola, No. 2, 2012.