Film Review: Almayer's Folly

More a formal treat than a great movie, <i>Almayer&#8217;s Folly</i> should at least engage fans of director Chantal Akerman.

What could have been Akerman’s folly, adapting and updating Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel, turns out to be mostly quite interesting, but contains an unfortunate flaw in its screenplay. Art-house audiences will probably be forgiving.

Set in present-day Malaysia (though filmed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia), Almayer’s Folly centers around Nina (Aurora Marion), a young woman of mixed racial background who graduates from a harsh boarding school, only to return home feeling bitter toward her adventurer European-born father, Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), and her unstable Malaysian-born mother, Zahira (Sakhna Oum). When she meets the exciting young militant Dain (Zac Andrianasolo), Nina feels love for the first time and decides to run away with him. The jealousy and distress this causes the sickly Almayer leads to an unsurprising, downbeat climax and a more startling “ending” that we had witnessed in the film’s introductory scene.

Conrad’s narrative is never very complex, though in Akerman’s hands there are some subtle temporal and spatial shifts that give the story a denser quality than one might expect. Actually, the family melodrama is quite familiar stuff, but Akerman’s artful explorations make it seem unusual, if not original, with a significant emphasis on race, gender and colonialism (compare the opening scene close-up of Nina to the closing scene close-up of Almayer). The one major problem with the film, which was completely avoidable, concerns Akerman’s dialogue, which is top-heavy with tired, gratuitous expositional passages, often recited in monologues. These scenes contrast markedly with others completely devoid of spoken words.

Except for its talky parts, Almayer’s Folly lives up to Akerman’s characteristic aesthetic panache. Remon Fromont’s lush yet intimate widescreen lensing allows for both long-take tableaux (reminiscent of Akerman’s astonishing 1976 directorial debut, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) and traveling crane shots through the streets and forests. The dark, vivid color scheme and production design recall such works as diverse as Werner Herzog’s oddball Cobra Verde and Lou Ye’s moody Suzhou River. Thematically, Michael Haneke’s Cache comes to mind.

Though no composer is credited, Almayer’s Folly contains some effectively eerie original music, flanked between folk songs, Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” and a few ’50s and ’60s American pop songs (the standout being Dean Martin’s “Sway with Me,” which plays a part during the bravura opening sequence, representing the story’s ending). The performances are uneven: Merhar overplays Almayer at times but brings trenchant dignity at others (especially in the final shot), and Marion does a fine job as Nina, while Andrianasolo is even better as Dain.

Even though Almayer’s Folly lacks some of the rigorous brilliance of Chantal Akerman’s prior work, there are enough quality elements to make it noteworthy.