Friday, June 25, 2021

La Folie Almayer / Almayer's Folly

Chantal Akerman: La Folie Almayer / Almayer's Folly (FR/BE 2011) with Stanislas Merhar as Kaspar Almayer and Aurora Marion as Nina Almayer, his daughter.

FR/BE © 2011 Liaison Cinématographique / Paradise Films / Artémis Productions in coproduction with RTBF (Télévision Belge) and Belgacom. P: Patrick Quinet & Chantal Akerman. Co-P: Arlette Zylberberg. Line P: Marianne Lambert.
    D+SC: Chantal Akerman. Cin: Rémon Fromont – 35 mm – 1,85 – colour. Set design: Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux. Cost: Catherine Marchand. S: Pierre Mertens, Cécile Chagnaud, Thomas Gauder – Dolby SRD. ED. Claire Atherton.
    Adapted from the novel by Joseph Conrad: Almayer's Folly : A Story of an Eastern River (1895). Translated into Finnish by Olli Kivilinna as Tuulentupia (Jyväskylä : Gummerus, 1919).
    Soundtrack selections:
– Richard Wagner: prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1865).
– ”Sway” (”¿Quién será?”, Luis Demetrio, first perf. Pablo Beltrán Ruiz, instr., 1953), lyr. Norman Gimbel, perf. Dean Martin (1954).
– ”Love Of A Man”, perf. Gene Vincent (1961).
– W. A. Mozart: Ave verum corpus (KV 618) (1791).
    C: Stanislas Merhar (Kaspar Almayer), Aurora Marion (Nina Almayer, his daughter), Marc Barbé (Captain Lingard), Zac Andrianasolo (Daïn), Sakhna Oum (Zahira), Solida Chan (Chen).
    Loc: Cambodia.
    Languages: French, English, Khmer.
    127 min
    Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online 20 June 2021, with English subtitles.
    Theme: films by the morning guests.
    MSFF online, viewed on a 4K tv set in Lappeenranta, Midsummer Eve, 26 June 2021.

A river roars.
    The sun burns your eyes. A woman loses her mind. A girl sings in a honky tonk. A Chinese man on opium dreams. Running after a child through the jungle. Lightning.
    A marriage without love. A veil of sadness. Boundless joy. You will not have Nina. A young girl walks to the end of the night. Black sun.
    A father cries out his love. An outcast. An empty rowboat wobbles in the storm. Humid palm trees glisten. A dead man. Mosquitoes. A telluric film.
    A tragic story, like all Greek tragedies that never age. A tale as old as the world. A story as young as the world. Of love and folly. Of impossible dreams.

    – Chantal Akerman (La Folie Almayer press kit, 2011).

Qui de nous n’a eu sa terre promise, son jour d’extase et sa fin en exil?—Amiel.
– Joseph Conrad's motto in Almayer's Folly

AA: Chantal Akerman ended her career with a farewell film to her mother called No Home Movie (2015). She returned to what she identified as the drive of implosion, a hallmark of hers since her breakthrough in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

In contrast, La Folie Almayer, her penultimate film, was for her a work of liberation, rebellion, defiance. Based on the first novel by Joseph Conrad, Akerman focuses more on the daughter Nina than the father Kaspar. Indeed, the folly mentioned in the title concerns Nina and Kaspar equally.

It is a dream voyage on the wild rivers of Borneo surrounded by the mighty sea connecting Malaysia with Europe. Conrad wrote his novel in the age of high colonialism. His tale takes place in the Dutch colonies. Akerman's adaptation is less clearly identifiable in history, but judging by the pop hits on the soundtrack the year might be 1961, right after decolonization. The main tension remains between Europeans and the Malay.

Kaspar wants to give his daughter Nina the best European education, but for Nina it is a strange culture and a strange language. She rejects the education, she rejects her father. There is an unusual charge in the scenes between Nina and Kaspar. Judging by Akerman's fascinating interview in the film's press kit, it seems that Akerman was coming to terms with her own father's refusal to give her a Jewish education. Retroactively, La Folie Almayer seems like Chantal's farewell to her father like No Home Movie was the farewell to her mother Natalia.

Watching the encounter between Nina and Kaspar I thought this must be a creative contribution of the director, but reading Joseph Conrad's original text I was amazed to discover that it largely directly derives from it.

Conrad is widely known as a man's writer, but he started his literary career with novels that focus on relationships between European men and Southeast Asian women – Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. Together with The Rescue they form the "Lingard trilogy", Captain Lingard being a recurrent eyewitness in Conrad's novels before Captain Marlow.

In the cinema before WWII, Conrad was in fact mostly popular as a source of romantic adventures with strong female roles, including Maurice Tourneur's Victory (1919, with Seena Owen), Herbert Brenon's The Rescue (1929, with Lili Damita) and John Cromwell's Victory (1940, with Betty Field, my favourite of this cycle). After the war, Carol Reed directed an interesting adaptation of An Outcast of the Islands (1951, with Kerima).

In today's heightened alertness to colonialism and racism in cultural heritage, Conrad does not appear as a major offender. Suffice it to say that there is a difference between Conrad and Kipling. An unease about colonialism is present in Conrad's work from the beginning. Asian women are portrayed with a dignified distance. White colonialists are certainly not being idealized. Akerman changes the plot by starting it with Nina's liberation and ending it with Caspar's madness. Both solutions are valid even from a Conradian perspective.

The family roots of both Conrad and Akerman were in what was known at the time as the Pale of Settlement. The Pole Conrad / Korzeniowski was born in Ukraine, Berdychiv, the city with the largest share of a Jewish population in the Russian Empire. It had previously belonged to Poland. The patriotic Korzeniowski family was soon exiled to Vologda where both parents contracted tuberculosis, and Joseph became an orphan at age 11. I understand that Akerman's ancestral roots were in Belz, which belonged then to Poland, now to Ukraine. Almost all of Akerman's family were murdered in the Holocaust.

There are two essential experiences shared between Conrad and Akerman. One is the obsession with The Other. Another is homelessness, literal and existential. La Folie Almayer is a poetic meditation on both.

Carol Reed made a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad's second novel Outcast of the Islands in 1951. Peter Willems (Trevor Howard) disgraces himself trying to seduce the village chieftain's daughter Aissa (Kerima) and attempting to steal the business of his benefactor, Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson). Elmer Almayer (Robert Morley) is in charge of Lingard's operations in the village, living there together with his wife (Wendy Hiller).

Joseph Conrad : Tuulentupia (Almayer's Folly), GB 1895. Finnish translation by Olli Kivilinna / Gummerus, Jyväskylä, 1919.

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