Video Essay. Before and Elsewhere: Chantal Akerman’s "Almayer’s Folly"

An audiovisual essay exploring Chantal Akerman's penultimate film, adapted from Joseph Conrad and now playing on MUBI.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The ninth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.


It is something of a pity that, due to the sterling work of Criterion and the Belgian Cinematek, Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) is today best known and celebrated chiefly for her widely accessible string of 1970s masterpieces—Je tu il elle (1974), Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), News from Home (1976), and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)—to the exclusion of anything much else that followed in the subsequent 35 years of her career. Many recent tributes to her memory and legacy hardly mention this total body of work or, if so, only cursorily. Yet Akerman’s level of achievement and inventiveness never flagged.

Just taking her fiction feature film output alone, her later trajectory is marked by four towering masterpieces roughly a decade apart: Toute une nuit (1982), Nuit et jour (1991), La captive (1999), and Almayer’s Folly (2011). And that is not to even mention her remarkable work in documentary (D’est, 1993; No Home Movie, 2015), art installation (Femmes d’Anvers en novembre, 2008), or her continual work in television formats of varying lengths (Le déménagement, 1992; Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles, 1994). Or her published writing, the final manifestation of which was Ma mère rit in 2013. Or her long-nurtured musical project, Golden Eighties (1986).

Akerman’s free adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), abstracts its action to an extraordinary extent. The historical frame is displaced from colonial to post-colonial times, anywhere between the 1950s and now (there is no attempt to ‘dress’ contemporary street scenes to make them look anything other than what they are). The setting is nominally Malaysia, but the film was shot (and this is again plainly evident) in Cambodia. Akerman erased much potential detail concerning rebel insurgents, capitalist agents, and imperial powers. But don’t think for a moment that she thereby lessened what was, for her, the political force of the fable: reduced to this elemental form, it probes the deep pathology of racial hatred (a topic that haunted Akerman all her life), as embodied in the hopeless figure of Almayer. 

The French translation of the title, La folie Almayer, points not to an individual affliction but to a collective condition, an ‘Almayer madness’ reverberating across all points in a network. Once she has reduced her central characters to figures in such a network, tracing their strong bonds of intersubjectivity (love, hate, dependence, loyalty …), Akerman—like Claire Denis—then withdraws large pieces of the plot from directly being narrated, just as John Cale on Music for a New Society (1982) withdrew what he called the musical ‘core’ from the tracks, leaving only his voice and the ornate, interwoven, instrumental embellishments. 

Akerman knowingly approaches complete dissolution of what she referred to as a “simple story” here. The film comes with two endings, completely opposed in their tone and viewpoint—one of which is given to us at the very start. Some key events in the first half are placed in the narrating possession of the character of Chen, servant of Almayer's shifty business partner Lingard, complete with his voice-over—yet his ‘mastery’ over events (dubious at best) is abruptly discarded for the rest of the movie. In place of a straightforward or unambiguous story line, a more properly poetic organisation of the materials surges forth—based especially (under the clear influence of the cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang) on the metamorphic motif of water, which both creates linkages by riverboat, and dissolves them in thundering storms.

Almayer’s Folly can strike one as bleak and severe, and yet Akerman spoke of it as a film made in an atmosphere of total joy experienced by everybody involved. She relaxed her normally ultra-systematic, pre-planned style: both the actors and the camera were free to move within the basic parameters she set down. She evoked it as a rare occasion in which filmmaking and life fully interpenetrated, a time of laughing, singing, eating, dancing, and drinking. This is The Akerman Paradox: the intense sensuality of every kind of material (cinematic, gestural, natural, architectural, musical, social) is pressed into the service of exploring the most abominable outposts of supposedly civilized behaviour. Gaspard Almayer is the worst kind of blinkered racist that white culture could possibly produce, but he is also a father completely in love with his daughter—a passion which moved Akerman, and sparked in her the determination to begin the long haul required (four years) to get the movie made and released, against all odds. It would be the last time that Chantal Akerman (in the words of Leonard Cohen) “came so far for beauty.” At least, happily for the world, she left a lot behind.

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