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Venice and Toronto 2011. Chantal Akerman's "Almayer's Folly"

The trades are not impressed, but Akerman's first narrative feature in seven years does have its champions.

"Liberally adapted from Joseph Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly is Chantal Akerman's most satisfying fictional feature since La captive," writes Gabe Klinger in Cinema Scope. "Like that earlier film, which mined from Proust, it boils down its richly detailed source to a few austere gestures that balance the cross-cultural impulse of her recent documentary work (De l'autre côté comes to mind) with her better-known European narratives. There's not much in the way of plot, but rather a lot of emotive intensity in the mise en scène that suggests, while at the same time eluding, the deeper literary structure of Conrad's story."

"The film's prologue is deceptively thriller-like," writes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "A man wanders through an unidentified southeast Asian waterfront town until he pulls a knife and kills an outdoor music bar entertainer, leaving one of the accompanying dance troupe alone on stage. This turns out to be Nina (Aurora Marion), the girl around whom the whole plot revolves. As a child, she was taken from her home in a remote corner of the jungle to be educated in the city. Throughout her schooldays, she harbored a burning resentment towards her father, Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), a European who dreams of making a fortune and returning to the distant continent his mother described as paradise. Almayer is delighted when Nina, now an adult, unexpectedly comes back home. But after meeting insurgent militant Dain (Zac Adriansolo), she's implacably determined to forge her own future elsewhere. The main problem with Almayer's Folly is its focus on two main characters who are, for various reasons, less than engaging."

"For all its awkwardnesses," writes Derek Elley in Film Biz Asia, "Conrad's first novel, published in 1895, contained all the regular themes of his later works: a westerner, lured to Southeast Asia by the prospect of riches, goes mad from a mixture of love and loneliness. But Akerman has simply co-opted bits and pieces of Conrad's novel into one of her artier contemplations of isolation and anomie, throwing narrative coherence out of the window for a typically exotic and dream-like francophone view of far-flung Asia."

"Although Conrad's novel is set in Malaysia during the late 19th century, Akerman resets the action to the present day," adds Leslie Felperin in Variety. "That's fine, but it's rather odd she makes no attempt to disguise the fact the pic was shot in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the locals speak Khmer instead of Malay, even though the characters keep talking about the fact they're in Malaysia." Felperin also notes that Akerman "approached the making of the film in the same way she shoots docus, with an extemporaneous attitude, but unfortunately the result is something that feels slapped together and ill-considered rather than spontaneous and light."

"To harmonize with the slow pace and solemn, almost theatrical tone of her film, Akerman needed a cinematography free from the coldness of HD images and she opted for a shoot in Super 16," notes Domenico La Porta at Cineuropa. "The emulsion of the film adds the dirty and damp beauty which the film needed in order to make the setting — that jungle, that river, that hole in which Almayer awaits death — a character in its own right and decisive in this story of love, waiting and death in the soul."

For those who read German, Cristina Nord has met up with Akerman for die taz.

Update, 9/12: "Akerman's decision to take Conrad's 19th-century, Malaysia-set story to modern-day Cambodia without acknowledging the changes comes to strike less as an eccentric gesture than as a purposeful extension of the narrative's inquiries into cultural identity and colonial uprooting," suggests Fernando F Croce at the House Next Door. "Still, the film works most evocatively not as a visualization of a literary source, but as a companion piece to Akerman's 2000 masterpiece La Captive, another tale of obsessive drives hitting like tropical maladies. A work of engulfing jungles and rivers, vehement and incantatory speeches, and piercing female gazes in front of and behind the camera."

Update, 9/18: Phil Coldiron at the House Next Door: "Akerman shares none of Conrad's concerns, and treats the text as a stock from which to pull names, images, and narrative threads in order to weave them into a Denisian tapestry — though unlike Denis, the focus is less on the unraveling of the fabric than on studying the emotional-political forces that arrange the strands into this particular pattern. The guiding idea is a reversal of Conrad's imperialist and sexist tendencies, one that does not seek to put Akerman in Conrad's position, but to create a fluid vision of the decay of empire in which the same forces that drive imperialism are laid bare to show how sorely they lack on the human level."

Update, 9/30: Michael Sicinski for Cargo: "Through langour, halted movement, drunken paralysis, and the sheer physical effort of wading through the dense jungle foliage or negotiating the steep banks of the river, the characters in Almayer's Folly are stranded in a sort of colonist's nightmare projection of 'the dangerous Orient,' the Dutch East India Company as Samuel Beckett bug-box. Akerman shows the stresses within the family unit as always having been those present among unequal political powers, and gradually allows those power relations to inscribe themselves across raced and gendered bodies. Almayer's Folly, which inexplicably received a mixed reaction at TIFF, is without a doubt one of the best films of 2011."

Venice Film Festival director Marco Müller had hoped to screen Almayer's Folly in Competition, but Akerman insisted on keeping it Out of Competition. Screens Monday, Tuesday and the following Sunday in Toronto, and then it's on to London. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

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