Almayer’s Folly: Venice Film Review

Almayer’s Folly -2011- H
This Joseph Conrad adaptation favors atmosphere and mood over plot, with patience-testing results.

Art-house auteur Chantal Akerman adapts Joseph Conrad’s debut novel in this atmospheric French-Belgian co-production unspooling Out of Competition at Venice.

Revered Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman returns to fiction filmmaking after a 7-year gap with Almayer’s Folly, a slow-burning adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel set in a sweatily humid corner of Indochina. With a very small handful of exceptions including Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, Conrad’s writings have often proven ill-suited to the big screen, and Akerman’s approach never quite finds a way to update the text to a contemporary setting.

This is, therefore, just a so-so addition to her long, award-garlanded filmography, which has consisted of documentaries and TV work since 2004’s We Move Tomorrow. Fundamentally too static and old-fashioned to warrant more than cursory art-house play in French-speaking territories, it’s better suited to film festivals where retrospectives and tributes can place it in the context of Akerman’s previous work such as the seminal Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976).

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The film’s prologue is deceptively thriller-like: 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. Almayer is a brooding, introspective sort, ill at ease in his suffocating, humid environment but lacking the ability to improve his situation. So he pins all his hopes on his broken relationship with Nina – the latter defined by her resentful and emotional chill: “I’m already dead,” she bluntly informs the passionately smitten Dain. All of the more active, interesting and vital characters in the story – Dain, Almayer’s resourceful servant Chen (Solida Chan), his mentally unstable wife Zahira (Sakhna Oum) - are kept firmly on the sidelines.

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Indeed Akerman and her cinematographer Rémon Fremont are rather more interested in exploring the jungle-choked terrain of this lethally beautiful riverside environment, the camera lingering on or gliding through a world of thick green leaves and swampy water. But these background elements, for all their intensity, don’t really help us to access or understand what the characters are going through. Too many crucial plot developments happen off-screen, to the extent that, even after more than two hours and an ostentatiously protracted – and uneventful — final shot, the ending feels jarringly abrupt.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production companies: Liaison Cinématographique, Paradise Films, Artémis Productions
Cast: Stanislas Merhar, Aurora Marion, Zac Andriansolo, Solida Chan, Marc Barbé, Sakhna Oum
Director/screenwriter: Chantal Akerman
Based on the novel by: Joseph Conrad
Producers: Patrick Quinet, Chantal Akerman
Director of photography: Rémon Fromont
Production designers: Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux
Costume designer: Catherine Marchand
Editor: Claire Atherton
Sales: Doc & Film International, Paris
No rating, 128 minutes