The pressure and worry bearing down Su-hyeon and Ji-young (Cho Hyun-Chul and Kim Sae-byeok) manifests in slumped shoulders, heavy eyes, and hushed conversations; they may be mild-mannered by nature, but their nervousness about being abruptly thrust into the next phase of their adult lives and relationship seems to also be quietly sapping their strength. The unmarried couple of seven years at the center of Kim Dae-hwan’s emotionally rich, movingly true-to-life drama, Su-hyeon and Ji-young are in their early thirties, and they’re startled into a state of reflection about marriage, family, and careers after Ji-young hesitantly shares that her period is late. Unfolding in the days immediately after Ji-young breaks the news and the two of them together take trips to see each of their families, The First Lap finds as much feeling in its extended moments of silence (captured in exquisitely tense long takes) as it does in its soft-spoken dialogue. For instance, after a night with Su-hyeon’s family ends with his father becoming drunkenly nasty (that helps to explain why Su-hyeon’s mother privately urges Ji-young to not rush into marriage), Ji-young sits alone in her and Su-hyeon’s car, the camera fixed in the middle of the backseat to reveal just a third of her face in the rearview mirror. As Ji-young watches the sky turn a light pink from the sun rising over the boatyard just in front of her (an unadorned but gorgeous shot), is it a fear that she and Su-hyeon might turn out as unhappy as his parents that makes her eyes look so defeated? Or is it a more general melancholy about not having any map for how she and boyfriend ought to move forward? It’s largely thanks to beautifully subdued performances by Cho and Kim that such moments of ambiguity are ripe with unspoken thought and emotion.
The First Lap Trailer
The First Lap is currently available to stream on MUBI.
A leading light in modern Chinese cinema, filmmaker Jia Zhangke is far better known for his fiction work than his documentaries. That’s not exactly surprising. Jia is widely regarded for his incisive explorations of political, cultural, and economic upheaval in his home country, and while his thematic preoccupations are consistent across his fiction and non-fiction films, the use of genre in his recent narrative features – wuxia in A Touch of Sin (2013), melodrama in Mountains May Depart (2015), gangster epic in Ash is Purest White (2018) – brings thrills and stylization that, for better or worse, tend to garner more attention and conversation than talking head interviews usually do. Swimming Out Till the Sea Blue, Jia’s newest documentary, is made up almost entirely of interviews, many of them lengthy, with Chinese literary figures from various generations. Insightful, crisply shot, and elegantly edited together, it’s a more than worthy new entry in Jia’s filmography, no matter that it contains nothing as obviously sensational as Zhao Tao wielding a knife or pistol.
Swimming Out’s focus is primarily on four Chinese writers: Ma Feng (1922-2004), Jia Pingwa (b. 1952), Yu Hua (b. 1960), and Liang Hong (b. 1973). Always the expert in mapping personal histories and experiences onto broader changes in China, Jia interviews these figures, and in the case of Ma Feng, their families and acquaintances, not to investigate their artistic process or take stock of their bodies of work, but rather to explore how they were impacted by transformations in China throughout the 20th century. Jia Pingwa, for example, while sitting in his home, recalls food shortages and his father being condemned as a counter-revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution. Yu Hua remembers how, during a period of economic prosperity in the ‘90s, many of his peers gave up writing and went into business. Between interviews, Jia turns his camera towards crowds and pedestrians, surveying the faces of both the young and old as if he were looking for marks of history left on their skin.
The act of remembrance is central to Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. It’s less a documentary about Chinese literature than it is about four Chinese writers reflecting on the context in which they produced their work. Jia doesn’t hurry his subjects, using long scene lengths to give each writer’s stories and comments time to breath, and gives structure to the film by dividing it into 18 nondescriptly named chapters (the first chapter is titled “Eating,” the second, “Love”). He finds common refrains across conversations, chief among them being the contrast between urban and rural living that decades of urbanization and migration toward city centers has made stark. “The place you’re born is the place that half-buries you. That’s why ‘birthplace’ is also called ‘blood land’.” So reads a quote by Jia Pingwa, one of numerous pieces of text that appear on-screen over the course of the film. If that’s true, it suggests that a person who grows disconnected from their roots is bound to experience a sense of dislocation and longing. Swimming Out Till the Sea Blue suggests that such feelings are ones many Chinese today are wrestling with.
Rather than filing into the stream of Tokyo office workers headed to their desks like he used to each morning, Ryūhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) suddenly finds himself routinely getting in line at his neighborhood soup kitchen, surrounded by the homeless, debris, and other dejected men in suits. The patriarch of the middle-class Japanese family that Kiyoshi Kurosawa explores in this unique and profoundly moving family drama, Ryūhei is unemployed after his job is outsourced to China, and he’s too bitter and ashamed to tell his wife and two sons the truth about no longer having paycheck. So he goes on pretending all is normal, when really he’s leaving the house everyday for the unemployment office. Unbeknownst to him, his family is hiding woes of their own. His wife Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi) is slipping into a deep malaise, his older son wants to leave Japan and join the US military, and his younger son, knowing his dad would disapprove, is quietly putting his lunch money towards piano lessons behind his parent’s back.
Kurosawa’s rhythm is characteristically idiosyncratic. There’s a gear shift in pace in the middle section when there’s an unexpected moment of terror, which reminds you that while the movie is primarily a melancholy portrait of a family in crisis, it’s from a director who’s more widely known for his ability to unsettle. In common with other Kurosawa films is the theme of alienation: as each of the Sasaki’s grapple with their individual troubles, they do so in isolation from each other, and their lack of togetherness only exacerbates their unhappiness. It’s perfectly, heartbreakingly visualized in one particular scene: Ryūhei comes home late to find his wife half asleep on the couch, but exchanges only a few words with her before going straight upstairs. “Pull me up,” Megumi practically whispers since she’s half asleep, her exhaustion as emotional as it is physical. No one’s in the room, as we can see in the wide shot that shows us her laying on the couch. Cut to a close up of her hands as she raises them up in the air: “Somebody, please pull me up.” Despite their wanting to, Ryūhei and Megumi can’t start their lives over, and they can’t ever entirely rid themselves of the pressures that modern life puts on them, but perhaps in the end they’re inching back towards family cohesion, towards listening to and supporting each other rather than retreating from each other.
Michael Clawson: Hey, Jim, I’m glad to be back! We’re kicking this off after a long, grueling week of waiting to hear who our next president will be. Have you been obsessively checking the news like me? Or have you tuned it out and kept your head in the movies?
Jim: The waiting was miserable. But I have to tell you, I’ve been thinking about this edition for a while now, anticipating it, because of its timing. I’ve wondered often how the outcome of the election might color our moods when it came time to do this. As much as film watching and discussion provides us with a redoubt against the madness of today’s world, I couldn’t help but wonder if that sturdy fortress might be overcome by the unthinkable. But alas, I think we dodged that bullet, and have something – a little something – to celebrate near the end of a pretty terrible year.
So, let’s get into it. In the big, wide wonderful world of Olivier Assayas films, when and how did you come to Summer Hours?
Michael: I’d wondered about that too, the possibility of struggling to get into the right frame of mind for this discussion had things gone differently. Fortunately, I can report I’m very much here mentally and am excited to talk through a movie that I love, and that I gather you like quite a bit too.
I first saw Summer Hours in May 2019. Mubi was doing a small Assayas retrospective at the time ahead of the release of Non-Fiction—”The Parallel Worlds of Olivier Assayas” was the program name—and during it I caught Summer Hours as well as Demonlover (also a great movie). I’d already seen Clouds of Sils Maria, Something in the Air, and Personal Shopper, and was already a big Assayas fan, but Summer Hours was the film that really cemented him as one of my favorite directors. I was deeply moved by it, and for reasons we will without a doubt discuss, I remember thinking a lot afterwards about some of the material things and pieces of art both that I own now and that sit in the house I grew up in, and what they’ve meant to me in the past and what they’ll mean to me down the line.
How about you? How did you first meet Summer Hours?
Jim: I don’t remember exactly when I first saw it, but it was at the same time I first saw Clouds and Personal Shopper, meaning Assayas’ more recent stuff. As you may have gathered about me by now, I tend to fix my sights on individual actors who impress me, and then hunt down as many of their titles as I can find. And in this case, it was Juliette Binoche. I’m pretty sure it was my love for Binoche that led me to Summer Hours, and by that route to Assayas in general.
Parallel experiences in our own lives to the elements of this film are something I want to touch on, because I think it probably has a lot to do with how much a viewer will relate to and like this film, or not. But first, let’s go over a general summary of the storyline. The film opens with a family gathering at a home in the country not far outside of Paris. Who do meet and what do we learn?
Michael: We meet quite a few people! The family gathering you mention is a birthday celebration for elderly matriarch Hélène Berthier, who’s played by Edith Scob. Hélène is joined by her three grown children, Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Dardenne film regular Jérémie Renier), along with Frédéric and Jérémie’s spouses and each couple’s children. Frédéric and his wife have a teenage son and daughter, who play more of a role in the story than Jérémie’s younger children. The film opens on a warm, festive note with everyone in mostly good spirits: it’s a sunny summer day, and the kids are running around outside with the dogs in tow while the adults pop champagne, talk, and open presents on the patio.
Assayas efficiently and organically familiarizes us with each of the adults. We learn that art collection has been a major aspect of Hélène’s life, and the family home, where she now lives with just her housekeeper (her grown kids have moved and scattered geographically), is full of the paintings and furniture pieces she’s accrued over the years. Of special interest to her has been the preservation and exhibition of the work of her artist uncle, Paul Berthier, for whom she had a great deal of affection. So much so that she changed her last name from Marly to Berthier. We also learn about her children’s lives and occupations: Jérémie and his family have flown in from China, where he works in business (for the shoe company Puma, more specifically), Frédéric and his family live in Paris, where’s he an economics professor and writer, and Adrienne lives with her boyfriend in New York, where she’s a product designer.
The primary narrative thread begins when Hélène talks with Frederic about what will be done with the family home and all the art it houses when she passes away. There’s talk of whether or not the work should be donated, and if the house ought to be kept or sold. It’s shortly after the film’s extended opening that we jump forward in time to when Hélène has in fact passed away, and Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémieare forced to confront those same questions together.
I think Assayas does a really phenomenal job of laying the groundwork and establishing family dynamics in the film’s beginning. What do you think? And what do you make of everyone up to this point? Please add detail or correct me on anything I’ve misremembered.
Jim: That whole opening act is as good an example as you’ll find of Assayas’ talent for constructing a world that instantly feels lived-in and natural. The camera follows the children and the dogs running down stairs and paths in the woods, climbing trees, pausing to decipher a clue that’s part of the treasure hunt they’re playing at, then erupting again into motion, what I like to call Assayas’ kinetic camera. When the attention turns to the adults seated around the outdoor table, the camera follows the bustle of Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie as they bring their mother presents to open, capturing their respective points-of-view, then eventually settles into more sustained examinations of the personal dynamics between characters. From a purely filmmaking perspective, the opening segment is a remarkable accomplishment.
There is one goof that amuses me every time I watch it. Did you notice that when Hélène unwraps the book about her uncle’s artwork, the wrapping paper doesn’t tear off cleanly, and in the series of shots that follow, the remnants of the paper still attached to the book come and go discontinuously? First there’s a little piece in the corner, then it’s gone, then it comes back. It’s surprising to see flaws like that with Assayas.
The three primary gifts that Hélène receives from her three children are worth noting. Her two sons give her practical gifts, while Adrienne, who shares her mother’s love for art, gives her the book on Berthier. We learn a lot about Hélène from the way she reacts to each of the gifts. The cordless phone (with three handsets!) that Frédéric gives her annoys her, and she does little to pretend otherwise. It’s a piece of modern technology that, though useful, couldn’t be less meaningful to her; it appears several times in subsequent scenes throughout the film, but never actually leaves the box. The blanket that Jérémie gives her she waves off as a typical thing to give an old woman. She’s grateful, but honest, and seems to be maybe agitated or depressed about something, but it’s unclear, at least at this point, why.
There’s a great little scene between Hélène and Adrienne when they trade their opinions about certain design aesthetics. Although it’s evident that Adrienne doesn’t share her mother’s taste for an elaborate silver tea service, she nevertheless concedes its beauty. As a designer of dishware herself, she has strong opinions, but is politely restrained about expressing them. But as we’ve seen, Hélène likes to express herself frankly, so says what Adrienne politely won’t. “In general,” Hélène tells her, “you prefer objects not weighed down by the past,” which Adrienne quietly confirms. Not only is it a telling exchange between mother and daughter, but serves also as a great thematic point for the film as a whole. The exchange about the stamped silver tray is especially cool, since it prompts Adrienne to recall a surreal dream in which the tray is transformed into a living thing. I really love that scene between those two. Just watching Edith Scob and Juliette Binoche working off each other and building those characters is a wonderful thing to behold.
Talk more about the opening act, since it has, in my opinion, an outsized importance in the film. Of course, there’s the conversation between Frédéric and his mother, which you’ve already outlined. What other details stick with you from that first twenty-six minutes?
Michael: The continuity error you mentioned, I didn’t catch that! I’ll be watching for it on my next viewing. I heard Assayas say in an interview that he doesn’t map out any of his camera movement until the morning of a shoot. With that in mind, it’s kind of surprising that you don’t see more of those kinds of issues, but you’re right, it’s not something you expect to see in his films. Just to quickly build on your comments about Assayas’ kinetic camera: in interviews, the first thing you notice about Assayas is that he’s a fast thinker and a fast talker. I’ve always liked how the nimble camerawork that you alluded to feels like an extension of that aspect of his personality. That occasional feeling of restlessness in his camera movement is especially electrifying in Irma Vep, but I agree with you, the opening of Summer Hours is another great example of it.
Another brief interaction from the opening act that’s worth mentioning occurs between Frédéric and his teenagers, Sylvie and Pierre. He pulls them aside at one point and draws their attention to two paintings in the house by a 19th century painter, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. As they’re looking at the paintings, Frédéric tells Sylvie and Pierre that the art will someday be theirs, but he doesn’t get much more than a shrug in terms of a response from them. “They’re okay, but not what I like most,” Sylvie says. Pierre: “Yeah, it’s another era.” A cut then quickly takes us back outside to the patio. I like the brevity of this moment. So much of the movie is about how each member and successive generation of a family relates to the family home and all that it contains. Moments like these are illuminating, but Assayas doesn’t overemphasize their connection to the larger theme, and instead lets them unfold quite nonchalantly.
In addition to the silver tray that you already mentioned, Assayas draws our eye towards a few particular objects in the opening act. One is a vase that Frédéric asks the housekeeper Éloise to retrieve from a cupboard so that he can put flowers he’s picked in it. Another is a broken Degas sculpture made from plaster that Frédéric and Jérémie apparently broke when they were young. I especially like the significance of the sculpture. One idea that I think the film hits on relates to how objects have multiple functions: something like a vase can have aesthetic value, economic value, sentimental value, and practical utility. The broken sculpture has lost its aesthetic value, but it remains a container of memories for Frédéric. Assayas is constantly having us reappraise the objects we follow throughout the movie, gently nudging us to see each object’s different functions and their meaning to different characters.
There’s more detail in the opening act that we can discuss, so fill in anything we haven’t touched on yet, or feel free to take us forward narratively.
Jim: Maybe Assayas films are filled with continuity errors, but I don’t see them. That’s more likely than anything.
The kinetic camera. It was the first thing that really knocked me out about Assayas. I’m always awed by how his camera swoops into the physical flow of his characters and trails so smoothly beside them, weaving through crowded, tight little spaces. Often his films start with it, which lends that feeling of being dropped into the middle of a story already underway.
I think we can move on to the middle section of the film, a series of episodes that follow the death of Hélène and involve Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie dealing with the estate, including an undertaker, a lawyer and various museum officials, art experts and appraisers. I’m less enamored with this part of the story than I am with the opening and closing sequences. Though there’s an overarching quality of procedural box-checking, which loses me a bit, the ensemble performances from Berling, Binoche, Renier, and the actors who play their wives and fiancé, are thrilling to watch. The meeting when they all come to the realization that the house has to be sold is a fantastic feat of psychological subtlety, from script to direction to performance. The potential for conflict is obvious in their facial expressions and halting words, while their efforts to steer a careful course to resolution are nearly as suspenseful as a car chase.
I have some thoughts on the predominance of stuff as the ostensible subject of these scenes, and the driving force of globalization that serves as the soup it’s all suspended in, but I’ll sit on that for now and let you take the conversation wherever you like. There are lots of fascinating subjects circling around over the middle act that each individual viewer can prioritize as more or less relevant than others. What’s your read on it?
Michael: I would agree that it’s in the first and final act that the film soars. One thing I find intriguing about the middle section is how Assayas skips over certain narrative beats. For example, there’s the scene where Adrienne comes out of a room at what looks like a small event center, where they presumably just held a memorial service for Hélène. I think it’s one of Binoche’s finest moments in the film: Adrienne sits down next to her boyfriend, the camera elegantly follows a curved line as it comes towards her, and she begins to cry, sorrowfully shaking her head as she processes her mother’s passing. I love that Assayas ditches some obviously emotional moments in favor of subtler ones, as he does here. He’s dipped his toes into various genres, like crime/espionage with Wasp Network and Carlos, or the supernatural with Personal Shopper, but melodrama is one kind of storytelling I just can’t imagine him doing.
Back to Summer Hours and its middle portion specifically: what stands out in terms of the family dynamics is Frédéric’s slight bewilderment at the ease with which his siblings are willing to sell what they’ve inherited. He’s reluctant to let go of the house, where he thinks they all ought to convene periodically before eventually passing the house on to their kids. It’s clear that he assumed Adrienne and Jérémie would feel the same way, and when he learns otherwise, his disappointment is mildly heartbreaking. I see a lot of myself in Frédéric here. I’m the kind of person who will cling to material things that I associate with meaningful memories. I also have a strong attachment to the house I grew up in. Assayas doesn’t begrudge Adrienne and Jérémie for their practically minded votes to sell everything, but I think he extends his sympathy to Frédéric. You feel it, for example, when shortly after the votes to sell or not have been cast, the camera follows Frédéric into another room, a bedroom, where he takes a minute to be alone, too in his head to have even turned on the lights as he walked in.
So, what are your thoughts about the film’s interest in globalization? I find it rather tragic that while globalization suggests interconnectedness at a macro level, it can mean the opposite on a personal level. It’s a force that’s actually pulling this family in different directions.
Jim: Well, first, yes, the scene with Adrienne crying after the memorial service is peak Binoche. That little shake of her head tells you so much about how she’s processing her grief in that moment, that she’s feeling things she can’t quite believe, or understand, or accept. With great actors, it’s always the smallest things that signal their genius the loudest.
More than globalization, I see heritage as the central concern of Summer Hours, and globalization its principal challenge. The inheritance of the family home and the works of art within it are an obvious metaphor for national heritage (in this case French), and the sense of birthright its citizens feel for the country and its cultural inheritance. Globalization, which distresses established notions about national and cultural congruity and the shared identity of discrete subsets of people, isn’t, in my view, a good or bad thing, but an unavoidable fact that compels us to reevaluate all kinds of things, one of which is heritage. The fragmenting caused by globalization may actually help reveal things we hadn’t noticed before, and help resolve differences that might otherwise fester.
Imagine the Marlys, these same individuals, going through this same ordeal in a previous era. More than likely, the three adult children would live in relatively close proximity to one another and the ancestral home. The passing of the estate from one generation to the next would simply happen, as a matter of course. There would be no discussion about it. But would that mean that Frédéric, Adrienne, and Jérémie would be equally enthusiastic about it, that each would share the same love for the place and desire to convene there for every special event? If the way I read Adrienne, and, to a lesser degree, Jérémie, is correct, their love for the place would not be as strong as Frédéric’s, but they would feel obliged to observe the ritual gatherings as a matter of tradition, in effect doing things they’re not entirely thrilled about doing. It’s also worth noting that in a previous era, Adrienne, as a woman, the little sister of two older brothers, would not likely have much say in any of it at all.
So, are the forces of globalization, and modernization, on the family helping to liberate some of them from insular family obligations they enjoy less than others? I don’t know if you have siblings, Michael, but do they, or would they, have the same feelings about the family home as you? I’m not trying to posit that globalization is some kind of enabler of selfishness – it doesn’t have intentions – but it certainly has the effect of cracking open previously closed systems. As frightening and alienating as globalization can be for many, it does have the power to liberate, and to foster reinvention, for others. For some, heritage and tradition are penultimate, while for others they’re suffocating. I think that dynamic is at play between the adult siblings, their mother, and the family estate, and, again, in a symbolic fashion, for national heritage at large. I’m reminded of a moment when Adrienne admits to not having a strong connection to the house, or desire to return to it, and, she adds, no strong desire to return to France.
The children, the actual young people in the film, are another factor entirely, which we’ll surely get to, but I’ll shut up now. You brought the film, so I want to hear more about your thoughts.
Michael: That’s an interesting take! I’ve been seeing it the other way around. I’ve thought of Adrienne and Jérémie as lightly swept up in globalization’s currents in a way that abets their detachment from their heritage and home. In addition to the comments Adrienne makes about the family home and France meaning less and less to her, she also says, in the film’s first few minutes, that she can’t come visit Hélène more often because the demands of her job keep her tied down in New York. I’ve wondered if it’s the extended periods of time away, immersed in her work and a different culture in a distant city, that in part causes Adrienne’s estrangement from her roots. Jérémie, on the other hand, is more transparently excited about an increasingly interconnected world, but I don’t get the sense that it’s because he wants to untether himself from his origins. It’s mentioned that while he’s further away from Hélène than Adrienne, he consistently visits every summer, and at Hélène’s birthday celebration, he seems even happier than Adrienne to be there. I also wonder just how truly empowered he is by the transformations in his line of work. His job is going to China whether he likes it or not. I see your point though. A globalized economy can be empowering for someone who’s stifled by or dissatisfied with their current place in the world. You’ve definitely complicated my thoughts about what might be underlying each of the Marly children’s motivations. And of course, there’s the simple matter of each character’s personality. Regardless of their relationship to these larger forces that we’re talking about, Adrienne and Jérémie do seem like they just aren’t as sentimental as Frédéric.
Before we switch to talking about the young people, which will probably lead us into the film’s final third, I’ll bring up one character whose role in the story I absolutely love: Éloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), Hélène’s bespectacled, endearing, and dependable elderly housekeeper. The house and all the art inside it isn’t hers to keep or sell, but it’s her life that will arguably change most dramatically based on what the grown Marly children decide to do. She seems as emotionally connected to the material inheritance as Frédéric, if not even more so! We learn that after the sale, Éloise will relocate to the South of France, where she has relatives. Frédéric, Jérémie, and Adrienne are by no means inconsiderate towards Éloise, but I find it incredibly poignant how she’s essentially voiceless in the matter, and is left to process Hélène’s passing more or less alone (I forget who the gentleman is that accompanies her on a few trips to the house. Hopefully he’s good company?). The scenes where she comes to check up on the house, first in the winter, when Frédéric and Adrienne are there with buyers, and then again in warmer weather, after the house has been emptied, are so melancholy and wonderful. The loveliness of the score, with its acoustic guitar and strings, really comes forward in those moments. Éloise long knew how all this would likely turn out, but I can’t imagine that makes it any easier for her to say goodbye to the physical space and things she’s become so intimately acquainted with.
Jim: Okay, let me try it this way…
Perhaps I’m overstating it, or evaluating these characters too rigidly, but I do think Assayas is not merely viewing them as people affected by the currents of globalization and shifting cultural expectations. There’s a through-line in a lot of his films about the emancipation of individuals from things that restrict them, including themselves. There’s a choice any individual can make to liberate him- or herself from any confining arrangement. I think of Charles Berling’s character Jean in the 2000 Assayas film Les Destinées sentimentales, who essentially has to break from the conservative orders that define him, including his own choices, to ultimately find his way to a place where he can live with himself. Despite where these individuals in Assayas films end up after separating from their defining circumstances, the important part, the part that interests Assayas, is the journey and the transformations they undergo in the process. Think of Christine in Cold Water.
My misstep is to assert that Adrienne and Jérémiewish to break from their family heritage. I honestly doubt they know what they want with regard to the house and the stuff, but the circumstances of their lives are permitting them to reinvent their relationships with things like family and the meaning of “home,” which they clearly find good reasons to do. And what we’re seeing with Adrienne and Jérémie in Summer Hours is each of them in the process of undergoing that cleavage, just as we see with Christine in Cold Water and Jean in Les Destinées.
I, too, love the character of Éloise. I think it’s fitting that as the only working-class character in the film, she loses the most from the sale of the house, but complains the least, since, like you say, she has no voice. She gets her consolation prize in the form of the bubble vase, an object of considerable value, though she doesn’t know that, and wouldn’t care, even if she did. The vase’s value is perfectly clear to her, as it’s always been, with its utility and its visual appeal, which is far more concrete and meaningful to her than its appraised value as a work of art. Éloise’s place in the story serves as an other perspective to the privileged positions of the three siblings, one in which the value of a place, or the value of a thing, is gauged mostly by its usefulness, or its agreeableness, not its market figure.
On the subject of the children, I want to ask you about the episode at home in Paris with Frédéric’s family, when his daughter Sylvie is busted for shoplifting. What do you think the purpose of that part of the film is? What is it contributing? It feels like a remnant of some larger side-story that was left out of the film. Or am I completely missing the obvious? Don’t get me wrong, I really like that part, and want more of it, but I’m not sure where it fits.
Michael: Totally with you. I think I’ve overstated my own point a bit! I might have made it sound like I see the grown Marly kids as helpless casualties of macro forces. I don’t, and don’t think Assayas does either. These are characters with obvious agency and decision-making power. I mean only to suggest a way in which I see globalization as very subtly impacting the Marly family.
Is it safe to assume Assayas did some shoplifting as a teen? Between the inclusion of it here and in Cold Water, it sure feels like autobiographical detail. I’m not sure how Assayas sees it fitting into the narrative or themes of the film at large, but I’m with you, I like that it’s there. I think it broadens our sense of the various roles Frédéric plays in his own life. It enriches his character. Without the shoplifting episode, we’d primarily recognize Frederic in relation to his mother and siblings, with his role as father to his own children falling into the background and out of focus. It also nicely prepares us for more time with Sylvie in the film’s incredible final stretch. What do you make of it?
Jim: Of the shoplifting or the final stretch?
Michael: The shoplifting.
Jim: I think it’s a safe assumption that Assayas was a troublemaker as a teenager.
I suspect you’re right about the shoplifting incident, not to mention the drug possession part of it, which, in an amusing exchange with his son Pierre, implicates Frédéric himself. It all serves to ground Frédéric in a minor drama about his everyday life, and gives shape to Sylvie for her central place in the final sequence, since we know little about her up to that point. She’s the eldest of her generation in the Marly clan, and so is positioned to be, like her father, the one to carry forward the mantle of the family legacy.
In one of the final scenes, after having visited the Musée d’Orsay, where some of the most valuable and culturally relevant items from the house are now on display, Frédéric and his wife Lisa are having lunch and discussing the final details of the estate sale. Lisa mentions that Sylvie and Pierre and their friends are going to spend the weekend at the house before it sells, and have a big party. Frédéric says “They better behave,” to which Lisa asks “Why?” which gradually occurs to them both as very funny, which it is. It’s really cathartic to laugh with the two of them in that instant, after so many of the heavy and melancholy events that have preceded it. Come to think of it, it does speak back to the shoplifting incident and the subsequent scolding, when Sylvie’s youthful transgressions receive a dire reaction, since here the thought of her and her friends misbehaving is casually dismissed.
This brings us to the film’s final sequence, back at the house in the country, as Sylvie and Pierre receive their friends and settle in for their festive weekend. As we know from Cold Water, Olivier Assayas is a master at capturing teenagers partying. Though here it’s a different generation, it’s no less spectacular. Describe this amazing scene, Michael. I’d love to hear you tell it.
Michael: The final ten minutes or so are utterly intoxicating. Assayas takes his kinetic camera, to use your phrase again, and sweeps it around the country house as the weekend of partying gets underway, capturing all the little sources of electricity that begin to charge the atmosphere. Friends of Sylvie and Pierre pull up in the driveway on motorbikes, beer and weed start to make their way around, speakers get set up and music starts blaring. The scene comes to life so thrillingly in part because Assayas shoots it like he does the party scene in Cold Water: he’s mainly tracking Sylvie’s movements throughout the house, but for brief moments, the camera will turn towards the other kids and follow them around a corner or as they go from inside to the patio, before returning to Sylvie. Although I suppose it technically is one, I’m not inclined to call the scene a “set piece” because of how totally organic and apparently spontaneous all the activity seems. I love it so much. The Marly home, now empty of the precious material things and art it housed for so long, is once again overflowing with life, but now it’s that of the next generation.
Jim: Set piece is accurate, I think. The last time I watched it, it did feel choreographed, though it is done with a remarkable degree of natural flow. The single driver of that flow is that Sylvie is looking for her boyfriend Richard, so she’s bouncing from group to group, asking where he is, encountering friends along the way, stopping to change the music. There is a discernible line that the camera is following, or goal it’s pursuing, which is to find Richard. When Richard is finally found at the pond, he and Sylvie keep moving, to find solitude away from the bustle of the party. The central narrative thread of the film is then concluded when Sylvie and Richard stop in an area where Sylvie recalls picking berries there with her grandmother Hélène, and how Hélène had told her that someday Sylvie would bring her children there, which prompts her to fall into a sad reverie about how that won’t happen and what she’s lost, maybe something she hasn’t fully digested until that moment. It’s intensely moving, accentuated by the camera’s painterly profile of her, cast in a warm contrast of shadow and light. The entire film pauses in that moment and reflects back on itself, then regathers and hurls forward again. Sylvie and Richard climb over an old stone wall and run off across another field as the camera, now still, watches them bound off into their future.
There really are few films with endings so great as Summer Hours. Any thoughts on it yourself? Anything we missed? And finally, since you brought the film to discuss, how would you describe its importance to you, not only as a work of art, but as a personal touchstone?
Michael: Those final few minutes with Sylvie and Richard off on their own feel like they’re right out of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love.
This movie hits on themes I’m naturally drawn to, namely family, art, and loss, and I’m just knocked out by its generally wistful tone and the gracefulness of Assayas’ storytelling. I love the films of Yasujrō Ozu, and of the Assayas films I’ve seen, Summer Hours strikes me as his most Ozu-like with its interest in the dynamics between and within the different generations of a single family. I’ve seen it several times now, and every time it puts me in a reflective state. I think about visiting my grandparent’s houses when I was young and my relationship to all the things they had, some of which are now in my apartment, and it also makes me think about my own childhood home, and how hard it’s going to be someday to make the calculations the Marly children have to make about what to keep and what to sell. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite Assayas film or not—that might be Clouds of Sils Maria—but this is the one of his that I think moves me the most.
Does Summer Hours have any special significance for you? Has it come up or down in your estimation since you first saw it?
Jim: Special significance? No, but I do love it. It’s a great comfort film. And it’s so very French, so I adore it for that, too. I would say you’ve helped me enjoy it on a more elemental level, so thank you. I think of it as a treat from one of my favorite directors. I guess my personal Assayas favorite is Personal Shopper, because of its taut formalism and Stewart’s amazing performance. All that said, I can relate to Summer Hours directly, because of an extended family property that’s left a lot of formative impressions on me since I was very young. I’ve struggled to remain connected with it, because of changes in my perception of the place and the people. That might help you, more than any of my previous words, understand some of the ways I responded to the part of the film concerned with the personal connections to the property. I think it’s crucial for our relationships with things and people to change, become challenging, and sometimes end. Stasis kind of freaks me out.
To wrap up the conversations now, I’m turning away from the film at hand and asking for a “reverb,” meaning something that your thoughts have been returning to recently. It can be anything. What’s been echoing in your brain lately, Michael?
Michael: Well, like most cinephiles, one thing I’m constantly thinking about is how cinema is and will continue to be impacted by the pandemic and political chaos in the US, neither of which look to be calming down anytime soon. More specifically though, I’ve been wondering about the possibility of there finally being less interest among general audiences in the kind of storytelling that most studio tent poles have gravitated towards in recent years. Going into 2021, what kind of appetite will people have for big-budget, spectacle-driven movies where the stakes are often absurdly, almost laughably cataclysmic, when we’ve been living through such dire times? I wonder how what constitutes escapism might change, and if there’ll be a shift in the movie mainstream towards stories that are lighter in tone. Personally, my hunger for foreign film has only intensified over the past ten months because I so desperately want to vicariously experience non-American culture. I know, these aren’t super unique ideas, but my mind does keep coming back to them.
What have you been mulling over?
Jim: I like your thinking and agree completely. I think suffering refines people’s relationship with beauty, to which all art aspires. The appetite for artifice might diminish.
I was listening to Kara Swisher interview novelist Jeff VanderMeer on her podcast Sway. VanderMeer is a big favorite of mine. He writes intensely psychedelic, weird fantastical fiction. He’s a gifted writer with a world-devouring imagination. At one point, Swisher asked him what he meant we he wrote “Find your contamination and greet it warmly. Attempt to make friends with it, and perhaps it will not destroy us.” He went on to talk about the mental construct of walls, of barriers, and how “we spend a lot of time keeping the outside outside.” He used pest control as an analogy. If you’ve read any VanderMeer, you’ll know how central this is to his work. If you’ve seen Alex Garland’s Annihilation, adapted from VanderMeer’s novel, you’ll recognize that theme there as well. Beyond the phantasmagorical panoply of his fiction, where VanderMeer explores ideas around contamination, it also has everyday applications that I probably don’t have to explain, involving anything one might observe as a contaminate, an invader, something undesirable. Isn’t it with adaptation and immersion that we always best survive incursion, rather than adding another layer of fortification to delay the inevitable? Important, too, to that survival, are mutation and death. A bit abstract and strange, I know, but VanderMeer endlessly enchants me, and given so many of the troubles rushing at us these days, the idea of absorbing contamination, both figuratively and literally, has been returning to my thoughts often since listening to that interview.
Michael, thanks for doing this with me again, and for bringing such a great film to discuss. Stay safe and we’ll do it again!
Michael: I haven’t read anything by VanderMeer, but I loved Annihilation, and your description of his work intrigues me.
Thanks again for hosting Jim, this was a lot of fun!
Jim: Watch this space in a couple weeks, when Andrew Hutchinson returns and we discuss Claire Denis’ masterpiece 35 Shots of Rum.
Summer Hours Trailer
Summer Hours is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and to stream on the Criterion Channel.
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.
Michael: Awesome, 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’sFolly, 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.