Almayer’s Folly: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

Almayer’s Folly

Directed by Chantal Akerman, 2011

Michael Clawson: Jim, how are you? And how excited are you that for this edition of Collokino, we’re talking about a film by one of your favorite directors, Chantal Akerman?

Jim Wilson: Michael, I’m well, thanks. It’s a real treat to sit in the guest’s chair this time around and chat about a film from my beloved Akerman. I’m so excited, I’m practically giddy.

MichaelAwesome, glad to hear it. We’re talking about Akerman’s 2011 film Almayer’s Folly, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name. How deep into Akerman’s filmography were you when you first saw it? Had she already cemented herself in the pantheon for you, or were you still getting acquainted with her work?

Jim: Well, let me tell you, because I love to tell it… When I first discovered Chantal Akerman, I fell for her completely. I knew she was my new polestar, when I first saw Jeanne Dielman and Je, tu, il, elle. Each film of hers I watched felt like something that had been waiting patiently for me to find. It was like finding myself in a small crowd of marvelous creatures, all speaking an obscure language I didn’t understand. As indecipherable as it was at first, it sounded like pure poetry to my ears, a language I then happily devoted myself to learning. So I found every Akerman film I could, whether on disc or streaming, and watched it. And Almayer’s Folly was one of those early finds. It’s an infinitely fascinating film to me, always revealing more and more of itself as I rewatch and consider it. I hope you didn’t find it completely unfathomable.

Michael:I’ve long hoped for a repertory screening of Jeanne Dielman here in Seattle because I’d love for my first experience with it to be on the big screen, but my patience is wearing thin. It was because of your high praise that I watched Je, tu, il, elle not too long ago; it was my first Akerman feature, and I’m with you, it’s really something.

I wouldn’t say Almayer’s is unfathomable, but it is a challenging film. I’m very glad I took your advice and watched it twice before this discussion, because the second viewing was crucial in helping me make sense of it. It’s not a puzzle film per se, but the first viewing felt like just laying out all the pieces on the table and assessing what we have, and the second is where I started putting things together and seeing the whole picture.

Would you be so kind as to kick us off with a summary?

Jim: My pleasure. The film begins in some unnamed Asian country, with the camera following closely behind someone entering a kind of open-air club. On stage, a group is performing Dean Martin’s “Sway”, with a young man singing into the microphone and a line of choreographed dancers swaying behind him. Cut to the face of the man who we entered behind, as he watches the performance on stage, the first of several sustained facial close-ups that define this film. Cut then to that same man, the one who entered the club with some clear intent, coming on stage and stabbing the vocalist. As the vocalist falls and drops his mike, the deception of his lip-synched routine is revealed, since Dean Martin’s singing continues without him. Though it’s not a deception anyone is fooled by, a clearly artificial performance, the revelation is still jarring. As the fraudulent singer is dragged off-stage and the dancers flee, one dancer remains. The camera fills itself with her face as she switches to singing “Ave Verum Corpus”, a Eucharistic chant in Latin, professing the redemptive powers of suffering, while off-camera a voice repeatedly calls her name, Nina, insisting that “Dain is dead.”

Soon after this, we learn that this scene is the ending to what follows, or, as we finally learn, one ending of two. One ending starts the film, while a second ending ends it. There are other instances of this same doubling, and duality, throughout the film. Doppelgangers, decoys and deceivers are everywhere.

Let me ask you… Did you mentally set this in a particular place and time as it first unfolded? If so, where and when?

Michael: Not really, but that ambiguity and the hypnotic effect of the music, lighting, and long takes really drew me in. Nina’s gaze into the camera as she sings forces you to sit up, and you’re compelled to try and decipher her expression, to glean what thought or feeling is behind her eyes. It’s clear that we’re in Asia, and more specifically Southeast Asia, but I couldn’t tell you what country we’re in, and would have an even harder time placing us in a particular decade. In fact, throughout most of the movie, I was constantly searching for visual detail that might ground me temporally, but the period kept eluding me. It seems as early as the ’50s and as late as the ’70s or ’80s. I know it’s intentionally vague to some degree, since we get the title card just after the events you described that reads “Before, Somewhere Else”, but did you have a decade in mind when watching the opening scene?

Jim: It’s a debated point, about setting in the film, what is intentional, and what is not. Let me start by saying it’s impossible to a get full sense of place and time from just the opening scenes, so I’ll broaden observations about it to within roughly the first half of the film. Conrad’s short novel takes place in Malaysia in the late 19th century, involving Dutch colonialists. Not unlike what Coppola did with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, Akerman updates “Almayer’s Folly” to modern times and a different colonial project, namely French colonialism in Cambodia.

The tricky thing, or the thing that’s interesting to ponder, is what Akerman intends with all of it. The character of Zahira, Nina’s mother and the wife of Almayer, is often referred to as the “so-called Malaysian”, while the presence of Islam is also referred to a few times, which points to Malaysia. But when we hear the native people talk, they speak Khmer, the language of Cambodia. Almayer and his benefactor Lingard are clearly French prospectors, so that points to Southeast Asia again, where the French held power, on and off, until the mid-fifties.

So Akerman is deliberately blurring the two places together. Where she’s also deliberately blurring lines, I think, is in terms of time, though for different reasons. Akerman struggled with financing for the film, so it was impossible for her to maintain a consistent era in which the film takes place. I suspect her intention was the 1950s, as the French colonial project was collapsing, but even a cursory glance at the scenes shot in Phnom Penh reveal it to be the time in which the film was shot in the late 2000s. It wasn’t uncommon for her to do things like that in her films, and it often underscored her relative indifference to those kinds of visual continuity, allowing indicators of time and space to fashion a film’s own unique semantic terrain.

Colonialism was a cancer Akerman abhorred with all her being. Her natural tendency to maintain ambiguity around place and time was a perfect means by which to blend those specific details together, and in doing so, I think, subvert and assail the notions of cultural and racial supremacy that fueled colonialism. Colonialism is, of course, what Almayer’s Folly is about, and more specifically the central trait of colonialism, which is madness. Colonialism is a project born out of collective madness that ultimately destroys everyone involved.

Michael: This is enlightening already. I had no idea what language the native people were speaking, or that Akerman might be using language to refer to multiple places at once. 

To add to your comment about Akerman’s indifference to continuity: I was struck by the dreamy visions we see in the film’s first half, which turn out to be visions of what transpires in the second half. I won’t get into too much detail about those since we aren’t there yet, but I bring it up now since they heighten this blurry sense of time you’re talking about. It’s still unclear to me even now if those sequences, which I love, are literally visions of a character foreseeing the storm that’s coming—I think the editing suggests they are—or if Akerman is just presenting material achronologically. Either way, it gave me a slippery grip on the storyline, especially on my first watch.

Akerman weaves her critiques of colonialism and the assimilation it demands of its victims into a story about the relationship, or lack thereof, between a father and daughter. I’m not well read on Akerman, but I do know she was very close with her mother. Whenever it makes sense to speak to it, I’d be curious to hear if you think the father-daughter dynamic in Almayer’s is reflective of any unique perspective or attitude that Akerman has towards parent-child relationships. 

Jim: It’s what we should get to right away. Plotting out scenes is meaningless with Almayer’s Folly, since it’s not really a linear story, or a singular one.

Akerman lived for her Mom, I think. Or her relationship with her mother pretty much defined her. It’s all over everything she did. The father-daughter relationship, I don’t know, she didn’t focus on that so much. In Almayer’s, that’s Conrad’s creation, after all, and I think Akerman found in his portrayal of a father, a parent, so recklessly in love with the idea of his daughter that he allowed it to destroy him, something Akerman adored, and something she couldn’t look away from.

The film may be about colonialism, but the colonialism is about a relationship between a father and his daughter, and how that embodies the raving soul of colonialism. The strange and painful knots of love are cinched tightly across racial boundaries and the delusion of one-way, hierarchical transformations.

I guess I should back up here for a moment and provide some basic information. Nina (Aurora Marion) is the daughter of Almayer, played by the always impressive Stanislas Merhar, a French colonial opportunist who lives in a compound on the bank of a wide tropical river, ostensibly a trading post for Lingard & Co., a French colonial merchant. Lingard (Marc Barbé) is Almayer’s boss and the adoptive father of Zahira, the indigenous women Lingard compels Almayer to marry. Almayer lives in a shadow-draped wooden house with Zahira, though they are estranged and conduct themselves independently. Almayer’s closest companion is Ali, his man servant, essentially a slave. There are others in attendance, but are rarely seen.

Almayer passes his time sweating in the heat, listening to Western music on his record player, drinking gin while fighting back the ever-encroaching jungle, and waiting for Lingard to return home from his latest expedition to the country’s interior, in search of the elusive goldmine that will make them rich and facilitate their return to Europe as triumphant colonial adventurers. Almayer’s and Zahira’s daughter Nina lives with them until she reaches school age, when she is shipped off to boarding school by the master Lingard, in an explosively emotional, and formally gorgeous, scene early in the film. Nina doesn’t return home until her late teens.

Because Nina’s mother is of native origin, Nina is a hated half-breed, reviled by the European side of her ancestry. The European-style boarding school in the city she is sent to, with the hope of making her “like us”, eventually ejects her, when Lingard fails to pay the school’s fees, a decision the school seems all too eager to conclude. Nina returns to her father’s ingrown, alienated world beside the great river, as bitter and detached and hateful as he is. There’s a lot to say about Nina and her relationship with her father, her mother, her native country, and her colonial origins. Who she is and where she belongs is the film’s preoccupation. Nina, then. She’s obviously a victim of racism and colonial disdain by her handlers. But who do you think she is to her father, or her “grandfather” Lingard?

Michael: On one hand, what Nina means to Almayer is what any daughter means to her father. She means the world to him. Akerman doesn’t show us him doting on her in any conventional or ordinary way, this is not that kind of movie, but his adoration, which evolves into a kind of all-consuming, eventually debilitating obsession, is abundantly clear. It’s revealed through his despondency when Lingard arrives to take Nina away for a European education, and in the narration, by the man who stabbed Dain, right after Nina leaves: “It got worse and worse without Nina. Almayer barely spoke. And if he spoke, it was to himself, or in a fever. The silence in that house was terrible. He got more and more miserable…It was her laugh that he missed most in the hostile silence of the house.” 

So part of Almayer wants Nina near him, as any father would, but the other accepts Lingard’s suggestion that because she is his daughter and partly white, he must facilitate and encourage her assimilation into Western culture. And he truly does want to heap on her what he sees as the glory of European culture. “One day, I’ll take you to a real concert. Chopin, Debussy. Not this racket,” Almayer says when they overhear a neighbor playing music to celebrate his nephew’s return from Mecca. He doesn’t even send Nina letters while she’s away at boarding school, let alone actually visit her in person, because he thinks it’s necessary that her immersion in European thought and culture go uninterrupted (that’s how I interpreted him keeping his distance, at least). In short, his plan, for lack of a better word, seriously backfires, and he winds up driving her further away, which only intensifies his madness.

You know how one definition of insanity is to try the same thing twice and expect different results? It applies here I think, since we hear towards the beginning that Lingard and Almayer had also tried to Westernize Nina’s mother, but that she “forgot it all. Rejected it with rage.” They seem to think that they can just try again with Nina, and that this time, the outcome will be to their liking.

Jim: I think all of that is right, but I would add that, despite his obsessive love for Nina, and what one can perceive as his wish for her to be Westernized, the primary reason Almayer allows Lingard to take Nina away from him and install her in a European boarding school is in service of his own greed, his wish to please Lingard, since he has hitched his ambitions entirely to Lingard’s good fortune, towards the goal of enriching himself with the resources of the country they are exploiting. If he truly loves Nina and merely wants to Westernize her, he would take her to France right away, but he doesn’t, and the reason he doesn’t is because he is thoroughly under the spell of that insidious colonial lunacy. The desire to Westernize is a part of that same mad program. What Conrad is so deftly pointing out in his novel, and which Akerman amplifies, is that to accept the idea that, in this case, Asian lands should be entirely open to European plunder and the Asian people re-educated to embrace Western culture and ideas, is a willful descent into complete madness, a madness that will invade and infect every corner of one’s being, from notions of self-preservation to the well-being of loved ones, and even love itself. Almayer’s love for Nina may be sincere, but is horribly corrupted by the greed, bigotry and triumphalism that fuels colonialism.

I want to speak to a couple things you brought up, Michael, about the foreshadowing of the storm and the role of Chen (Solida Chan), Lingard’s servant, the man who kills Dain in the opening scene of the film. As you mention, he serves as a narrator during the first half, but then disappears. I’m in the process of working out a theory about Chen and his place in the film, and the nature of point-of-view as well. Point-of-view, and the subject/object divide, are huge factors in Akerman’s films, but I’ve only recently started developing some ideas around how they apply to Almayer’s Folly. It’s not a dynamic in Conrad’s story, nor is the character of Chen, at least not the Chen we see in the film. I’m curious how you see his place in the story, because I think it’s a lot more important, at least in a structural sense, than is immediately evident.

Michael: Great points. I hadn’t touched on Almayer’s dreams of striking it rich at all, and you’re right, it’s a key factor, the essential one really, in his relationship with Nina withering to its end.

To be frank, even after two viewings, I’m still not quite sure what to make of Chen’s role in this story. He’s perhaps the most enigmatic element of the movie for me. I’ll say that he is involved in what I think is my favorite scene of the movie. We see him at Nina’s boarding school, packing a pipe as he listens to Nina singing in the next room over, and we cut to a shot where the camera tracks continuously leftwards through dense jungle greenery at night, while Nina and Dain, who the camera eventually finds amidst the plants, have a dreamily fragmented back and forth about the storm, her race, his wanting to be with her. Then we see them asleep on a small boat drifting slowly through the trees, there’s a shot of Nina during the storm, and a closeup of the rain hitting rough waters, and then suddenly, we’re back with Chen. Like I said, I’m not exactly sure what Akerman is after by suggesting this vision belongs to Dain, but the filmmaking is powerful.

So I’ll turn it back to you. What’s your theory?

Jim: In short, that Chen is the narrator of the first half of the film, until Lingard dies, at which point he exits the storyline, at least until the ending we see in the beginning, which actually follows the ending we see at the end. And even more, I’ll argue it’s from Chen’s point-of-view that the first part of the film is framed.

Chen is a curious character. He seems insignificant, until you pay closer attention to him. He is Lingard’s man servant. In a couple vague exchanges between them, Lingard refers to Chen as “angry”, indicating that he humiliated Chen at some previous time, probably when Lingard first pressed him into his service (in the novel, Lingard tussles with local pirates, some of whom he retains, like war booty, including the woman who becomes Nina’s mother). Somewhat similar to Dain, who we’ll get to shortly, he’s a local character with conflicting motives. Though he serves his colonial masters, he’s clearly troubled by what he sees, especially with regard to Nina.

I by no means will argue that this is an airtight theory. To the contrary, I can hear the air leaking out as I say this, but I swear there’s something to it.

The scene you cite when Chen is in his room, his domicile, whatever it’s properly called, filling and smoking his opium pipe, is a typical Akerman scene, where what we see and think is happening is elusive. It seems he’s watching a very young Nina when she’s first at the boarding school, being berated by an instructor, but is he, or is he remembering it? We never see what he’s looking at. It’s stupid and useless to try and chart out an Akerman film and stick empirical labels on characters and events and setting, as if it were a Nolan puzzle, but neither is she just throwing this stuff out nonsensically. I’ll suggest that what we hear is in Chen’s memory, whether recent or distant. As he starts to smoke his pipe, the sequence cuts to the jungle scene you so admire (it is an astonishingly gorgeous series of images, utilizing Akerman’s love of tracking shots – as much a movement through time as through space), where the older Nina and Dain are seen in the jungle, looking at the camera as it passes them. They seem to be speaking to each other, but we don’t see their lips move. They speak about Nina escaping the world of whites, how Dain is going to help Almayer find his goldmine, and how Dain will never change. Twice. The exchange is looped twice. Nina speaks of an approaching storm, but it seems like more of an abstraction. Then there is a shot of storm-churned water and a dead tree trapped against the river bank (this is taken directly from an image visited several times in Conrad’s novel), suggesting a storm.

The disparity between what is seen and what is heard goes back to Je, tu, il, elle, in the Akerman canon, which I read as an interpretation of subjective experience, the noisy contrast between various modes of perception. That Chen is simultaneously hearing one period in time while recalling, in an opium haze, what he heard from another time, overlaid by images that are imagined, makes perfect Akerman sense, since it’s so steeped in subjective reflection and the gauze of memory. After Chen emerges from his opium vision, we see a single static take of the older Nina staring out from behind the bars of her boarding school, as if in prison, an end-bracket to the sound we heard at the beginning of the sequence, of Nina being scolded when she was a little girl at the same school. Fast-forward then to the final moments of Lingard, when we see Chen massaging his chest, comforting him until he dies, which is also the end of Chen’s place in the story. And what do we see immediately following this, but the scene when Nina and Dain are actually struggling to get ashore during the storm foreseen earlier in your favorite scene, which then returns to the room where Chen was comforting Lingard, now flooded by a storm, Lingard dead on his bed floating in the flood waters.

The first part of the film is roughly told from Chen’s point-of-view, including moments of his narration, following an opening scene in which the camera literally follows behind him. Nina is the subject of this part of the film, but abstractly, from the point-of-view of a removed observer, Chen. When Chen’s connection to this world is terminated, with Lingard’s death, the film turns to Almayer’s point-of-view, starting with the great vine-clearing scene, which is one of my favorites. In this latter part of the film, Nina becomes the object of Almayer’s perspective, hence the object of the film, which, taken literally, makes obvious sense. Chen looks after Nina in a personal, maybe spiritual fashion, and is ultimately her savior.

I know it may sound as if I’ve gone the way of Almayer and lost my mind, and there’s more that can be said about it, but I think there’s something there that Akerman is saying about personal and collective memories, the anguish of watching one’s compatriots squashed by powers too great to resist, and the shame of cooperation, if not all-out collaboration. I do firmly believe that Akerman is observing Nina as both subject and object from two different points-of-view, whatever the finer details. But it is all, of course, as fluid as the perpetual river alongside which all this happens. So voilà, there it is. I’ll shut up now.

Michael: You’re leading me to want to talk about one of the primary tensions of the second half of the movie, which again centers on the relationship between Nina and Almayer and its decay. She is the object of his obsession and much of what we see is from his perspective, but what further amplifies his anger and delirium is that he’s so unsettled by the way she looks at him. He sees in the darkness of her eyes her resentment and complete absence of affection towards him, and he’s so uncomfortable with her cold, hard stares that it’s almost unbearable for him. “She scares me. She disturbs me…She keeps staring at me…Her eyes have something.” Almayer says that in reference to Zahira towards the beginning, but it’s the same thing he’s experiencing in the film’s second half, only now with Nina. It encapsulates a broader idea about history tragically repeating itself.

What do you see in Dain? Is he rescuing Nina from a father who’s totally losing it, or is he taking advantage of her vulnerability? And does the film suggest to you that the light in Nina has been permanently extinguished, or is there hope for her in the end?

Jim: Nina’s return gaze at her father is very much a part of the objectification of her by him that I’m talking about. But maybe more importantly, by extension, it’s an obvious metaphor for the objectification that colonialism applies to the peoples and lands it subjugates. This is what Almayer cannot understand, that what he and Lingard and countless men like them have done, to Nina, to Zahira, to the people of Malaysia or Cambodia or wherever, is insane, and will yield nothing but death, pain, loss and despair. That Almayer does it to his own daughter, and is so blinded by greed and the inhumanity of his actions that he can’t see what he’s done, or willfully denies it, is the great tragedy of the story. There are some slight indications of filial love on Nina’s part, particularly the protective pose she assumes when Almayer confronts Dain in the jungle, but they’re easily eclipsed. In Conrad’s novel, Nina behaves more affectionately with Almayer, though clearly conflicted, but Akerman’s treatment of Almayer in her version is much less merciful.

Dain (Zac Andrianasolo) is the most complex character, but not difficult to understand. Who is he? He’s obviously a smuggler and general outlaw. There are suggestions that he’s also an insurgent. I see Dain as an opportunist, so in that way not unlike Almayer himself. But he’s also similar to Chen, in that the circumstances of their occupation by an imperialist power compel them to serve opposing masters, often playing one off the other. But where Chen is driven largely by compassion and love, as misplaced as it may sometimes be, Dain is driven by self-enrichment. I think you’re right, that he perceives himself as Nina’s savior, but I don’t think he’s capable of love anymore than Almayer is, and for the same reasons. Nina is also not capable of love, as she confesses in that jungle confrontation scene, but she’s self-aware and understands why, which Dain and Almayer cannot, because of the madness they’ve voluntarily committed themselves to. Dain is a great example of that mirror-image rot that colonialism releases into the societies it crushes. Ultimately, of course, it takes the return of Chen, as we see in the opening scene, to finally liberate her from the last of her oppressors. And yes, I do think there’s hope for Nina. Akerman is clear about this, with the song of redemption she sings after Dain is murdered by Chen, and the beatific look on her face when she sings it. I see that ending in the beginning as a happy ending, as opposed to the ending in the ending, which we’ll get to, I imagine, in our own ending here.

But I want to hear you talk about any of the technical aspects that I know you have a keen eye for, and which are everywhere in this film. I personally love the way Akerman films all the activity on the river, like little Nina swimming, or the play of lights on the black water at night. And that one remarkable shot of Abdullah’s boat approaching Almayer’s dock at night, slowly, so slowly coming into view, as the music from it gets louder and louder, and when it glides to a stop, you see this incredibly colorful and intricate craft, with these glowing orbs bouncing gently on long bamboo poles, like some surreal vision of an Asiatic Charon crossing the river Styx to retrieve the dead, though it’s actually just a local patriarch come to seek Nina’s hand in marriage for his nephew. Or the fantastic sustained tracking shots of Nina in the city after she’s cast out from the school. Those are so signature Akerman they give me chills just thinking of them.

Michael: I’d wholeheartedly second what you praised, especially the tracking shots, which are mesmerizing. I really love the rich chiaroscuro of shots within Almayer’s bungalow, especially in the early scene where he and Lingard discuss Nina leaving for school. There’s one composition in particular, where Almayer is seated in a small pool of light coming in through the window, and Lingard stands by the door, shrouded in darkness except for a sliver of light hitting the side of his face. Ironically, it has the look of a painting by an Old Master like Vermeer or Caravaggio. I also love Akerman’s blocking, which stands out since the editing is so sparse and dialogue scenes mostly play out in two- or three-shots, rather than shot/reverse shots (except for when it really makes sense to do the latter, like when Almayer finds Dain and Nina together in the woods; the rift between them is wider than ever, and so Almayer is confined to his own frame). The shot of Nina and Dain sitting on the beach near the end, Almayer pacing back and forth behind them as the camera moves in tandem with him, and then the long take of Almayer in the foreground and Nina and Dain swimming toward the boat in the background, is just awesome filmmaking, and the sum total of it all—the shot lengths, the ellipses, the music and cinematography—is so hallucinatory and atmospheric.

Jim: And that’s why Akerman is the revered master that she is, or was. I guess I’ll always think of her in the present tense, since her impact on cinema will never be confined to the past.

So for a quick plot round-up, Nina is thrown out of her school and returns home to her parents, where she is profoundly unhappy. Zahira, her mother, does several things to keep her free of her father’s influence. She enables Nina’s budding relationship with Dain, who we’ve spoken of already. Though selfless and admirable, her mother’s machinations don’t ultimately benefit Nina, but you can’t fault her. Trying to keep Nina away from any further white influence is Zahira’s top priority, though she’s naïve to Dain’s true self. Zahira spirits Nina away to be with Dain. Dain and Nina, in a temporary jungle redoubt, consummate their affections. However, Almayer’s ever-attendant servant Ali was spying on Zahira’s and Nina’s efforts, so the following day Almayer hunts the couple down in the jungle.

The confrontation is a lost cause for the desperate and heartbroken Almayer, who ultimately sees that his daughter is set on tying her fortunes to Dain and going wherever he takes her, and, like he did when Lingard initially took Nina away from him, he relents, and takes Nina and Dain to an islet where the river meets the sea, where he has arranged for a boat that will take them away from him. I think that of all the emotional scenes in the film, and despite Akerman’s static and hyperreal representation of their physical interplay, that is the one that hits me the hardest. Almayer resigns himself to this final loss, is ushered back into his river boat by the gentle Ali, and returns to his shadowy home, absent Nina’s presence forever.

Which brings us to the final shot, which is, deservedly, the most-often talked about part of the film. In a single, slowly drifting close-up of Almayer’s face, we watch for seven minutes as Stanislas Merhar escorts Almayer to the depths of madness. It’s a chilling performance. Did you notice how the sunlight and shadows of the trees travel across his features for a little while near the beginning of the shot? It seems to suggest that time has been compressed during that spell, and hours have passed, the sun arcing gradually across the sky, in a matter of seconds. Everything about that shot, the patchwork of light and shadow, Almayer’s broken features, the slight shifts in his countenance, the ghostly highlighting of his eyelashes, and Akerman’s loving attention to her leading man in these final moments, is absolutely breathtaking.

Michael: Oh it really is a stunning last shot. He looks so haggard: his eyes are sunken, his skin drained of color. “‘Don’t walk barefoot’ I said. ‘You’re going to hurt yourself’. ‘The snakes will bite you.’” Muttering just a few short phrases over the course of the take, he couldn’t be more distant, more lost in the memory of Nina as a child. Merhar really sells it when he lethargically wipes away the snot that starts dripping out his nose. And for her part, Akerman pushes the camera towards his face so slowly that I didn’t even notice it was moving at first. Even though the closeup of Nina singing at the beginning isn’t literally the first shot of the movie, that closeup of her and this one of Almayer feel like bookends, and they’re equally magnetizing. 

Jim: Yeah, the two endings, the happy one in the beginning and the sad one at the end, both profoundly melancholic.

Like all things Akerman, I could talk about this film forever, though maybe it’s time to wrap up?

Michael: I suppose we should, but before we sign off, what’s in the pipeline for Collokino that readers can look forward to?

Jim: Hey, thanks for asking. I’m welcoming back James Westbrook as my guest for Collokino #8. As you and I can easily relate, Michael, Mr. Westbrook has caught the Pialat bug, so he’s bringing À nos amours to discuss. Look forward to that! I know I am.

Michael, I can’t thank you enough for doing this. Assuming the hosting duties and letting me go on about this strange film was a real treat. It sounds like you got something out of it. Anytime I can turn someone onto a Chantal Akerman film, it’s a small victory.

Michael: Excellent, now I have a good excuse to revisit À nos amours. 

Your passion in Akerman is infectious. Thanks for bringing this awesome film to my attention and for the illuminating thoughts about it. See you next time!

Almayer’s Folley Trailer

Almayer’s Folly is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and currently streaming on Mubi.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.

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