Long a favorite among die-hard cinephiles, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman is as noted for her elusiveness as she is for the quality of her work. Her uncompromising (and 201-minute-long) 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, to name the best-known example, is something of a legend for how many interpretations have been latched onto its gruelingly real-time depictions of potato-peeling and trick-turning.
Almayer's Folly, Akerman's first movie in over half a decade, screened last November at AFI Fest and plays the Aero tonight at 7:30 p.m. as part of Grit and Whimsy III: The Best of Recent Belgian Cinema. It's extremely unlikely to receive theatrical distribution at this point and, as your arts blog, we advise you to appease the cinema gods by seeing this movie and drinking Belgian beer at the ensuing reception.
Unsurprisingly for Akerman, the film begins with a deceptive calm. It's nighttime, the moon is casting a faint glow on an unspecified body of water, and neon lights in the distance announce a low-class Malaysian nightclub. We follow a man inside via a long, alluring tracking shot and, once there, watch a Dean Martin wannabe named Dain lip-sync onstage. Then he gets knifed.
Akerman is known for being meticulous and exacting (as well as punctuating moments of seeming tranquility with jarring acts of violence), and what's so remarkable about her is how simultaneously engaging she manages to be. In paying utmost attention to detail, she forces us do the same. What makes Almayer's Folly such a thrill, then, is that this fixation isn't just a means of highlighting the quotidian. No, this free-form adaptation of Joseph Conrad's first novel is (at least on the surface) about a Dutchman on the hunt for motherfucking pirate treasure.
Akerman's slow-roaming pans across the Southeast Asian landscape at times bring Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose last film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, won the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival) to mind, with the significant difference being that there are no monkey ghosts present to ease the characters' transitions into the afterlife. There's little if any comfort to be found in death, just the sense that our quibbles — few of which are so enticing as quests for buried riches — amount to rather little. Hardly an uplifting pronouncement, but one delivered with such confidence and force by Akerman that there's not much room for argument.
“Her fixed gaze, it's like death,” our eponymous hero (Stanislas Merhar) says early on in one of many chilling monologues delivered throughout. Dense brush is all around him and the sounds of the jungle are ever present. Almayer's Folly is lush and dreamy (if not quite dreamlike), but it never feels unanchored or given to pointless meandering. However hypnotic it at times becomes, this is a sober(ing) endeavor that never strays far from its post-colonial backdrop. Akerman, in the first of several sly statements on that milieu, closes the stunning opening sequence described above by answering the question of whether or not the subaltern can speak: maybe not, but she can sure as hell sing.
Almayer's Folly plays the Aero tonight at 7:30 with a Belgian beer reception to follow.