At this point, the filmmaker responsible for the much adored "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" can do whatever the hell she wants and still retain an immense amount of respect. Thankfully Chantal Akerman is still firing on all cylinders; "Almayer's Folly" (a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's debut novel of the same name) is an astoundingly terrific work that continues the slow, observant nature she is generally known for while adding a relatively heavier narrative.
Like a pro, Akerman seizes attention with an incredibly solid opening scene. Tracking behind an unknown middle-aged male, we come upon a Dean Martin tune being performed by a Cambodian man, supported by half-a-dozen female back-up dancers supremely dedicated to their fairly simplistic choreography. However, someone from the crowd stabs the singer (also revealing a fraud: he's lip-syncing) and drags him off stage. The girls follow in horror, except for a single lady stuck in a trance. As the song song fades, Nina (Aurora Marion) is brought back to reality and alerted that the vocalist has been murdered. She dutifully reports to very foreground of the frame and sings her own song, getting a generous amount of screen time before the filmmaker cuts away to a time-jumping title card. Aside from it being a pretty thrilling sequence, it introduces Nina's narrative crux in a very intriguing way: at first blending in the background, she goes from a hypnotized state to being front-and-center in one of the film's few close ups (there might be four in the entire thing, max). She's important, and her dear song, "Ave Verum Corpus," alludes to her difficult past and requests mercy.
Then the clock is set back a considerable (though unspecified) amount of time. Nina is a little girl, and her father Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) is a white colonialist hoping to make it big on a prospective, undiscovered gold mine. The man he's doing business with, Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé), assures him that they will strike riches in due time, and encourages sending Nina off to a European boarding school for a "white" education. While the father laments his forced marriage, he professes nothing but love for his daughter and agrees to the plan — the only thing is, wife Zahira already grabbed the child and took off, suspecting that something was amiss once she saw the Captain's ship pulling up. Almayer and Lingard pursue the women — Akerman shows the women escaping but overlays the father/husband's vile venting — and eventually succeed; off goes young Nina to boarding school.
But there's more: Lingard suffers from an illness which derails the plans of vast wealth and, surprise, Nina's promising educators don't take kindly to her non-white skin. She's now closer to the age she was in the beginning but not yet catatonic — instead there's a massive chip on her shoulder — and without means to continue at the boarding school, she returns home. Despite her vocal protests, Almayer takes on the search for the untapped gold mines to re-obtain that pricey education Nina once had.
Akerman is playing with a lot ideas in 'Folly,' from racism and colonialism (and the retribution of) to, most prominently, identity. Almayer hopes to mold his daughter through her expensive education, but its all for naught when her fellow students refuse to see past the color of her skin. Nina's father's entire persona is centered around her, but her shunning causes everything to crumble — leaving him a shell of a man, lost and without purpose. There’s also the switch of identities later on between two characters, a ruse which is quickly discovered. It all seems to suggest that change cannot be forced, rushed, or even wanted.
Shooting in lush jungles will likely always yield some pretty visuals, but Akerman impresses more with her use of lighting and composition. The director frequently enshrouds her cast in dark shadows, subduing the emotional states they're usually found in. Evening time is used especially well, and one particular moment is staged wide and near a window where fireworks are witnessed; dazzling pops that catch the eye in the surrounding night. Locations also serve deeper purposes, as the big city Nina finds herself in after being kicked out of school is presented in the same fashion the filmmaker shoots the chaotic jungle, both seemingly unwelcoming and uninhabitable.
Nobody in the film is particularly likeable: selfish, bitter, cocky, and blind are just a few ways to describe the cast. But they are human, flawed and all, and Akerman is patient with them — when they actually reveal a genuine moment of emotion, such as in the long, gut-slugging finale, it feels honest. This, combined with the rest of the filmmaker’s masterful workings, makes “Almayer’s Folly” a marvelous experience for any devoted cinephile. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too long for this director's next opus. [A]