Akerman made one great film: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The rest of her oeuvre is agreeably flawed.
Akerman was an experimenter. With every film, she tried to do something different. She was not an experimental film-maker, however; she worked in classic cinema modes.
The weaknesses in an experimental film can be excused as aspects of the film-maker’s unique vision. In an Akerman film, in which time passes and things happen (at least a few things) to distinct, recognizable characters – just as in a regular old mainstream movie – the weaknesses stand out as weaknesses. Yes, they are integral elements of the film, but since they interrupt or skew or confuse the drama, they cannot be excused. They can be indulged, though – indulged as signs of Akerman’s refusal to compromise her vision simply for the sake of being shown on a larger number of silver screens.
Before seeing Almayer’s Folly, I read the novel. (I don’t think a 60-plus year gap between readings warrants a smug “re-read.”)
It’s a mess. It is Conrad’s first novel, written in 1893, at the age of 36, while he was still a seaman (with literary ambitions) in the British Merchant Marine. Conrad’s ambitions are manifest in Almayer’s Folly; his genius is not.
Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly is operatic: an exotic setting; a pair of young lovers – a bandit prince and a ravishing, independent-minded young woman; a possessive father; a scheming old woman; a jealous servant girl; a pair of villainous nabobs; a comic character, à la Figaro, who steals the show; and a chorus of villagers and Dutch soldiers (who, as anyone staging the opera would be pleased to note, never appear on stage at the same time).
The gorgeousness of the lovers, their over-the-top ardor, bordering on hysteria, the danger in which they place themselves in Act Three simply to be together for an hour or so, all point to a heartbreaking, star-crossed, tragic finale worthy of Puccini or Verdi.
But no! The lovers escape their pursuers and live happily ever after. In fact, in a paragraph towards the end, Conrad offers the reader some details of their future marital bliss.
There are fine Conradian touches in Almayer’s Folly, but they do not make up for his hilariously overheated description of the young lovers’ passion.
Dreamily [Dain] assured himself over and over again that she would come, till the certitude crept into his heart and filled him with a great peace. Yes, when the next day broke, they would be together on the great blue sea that was like life—away from the forests that were like death. He murmured the name of Nina into the silent space with a tender smile: this seemed to break the spell of stillness, and far away by the creek a frog croaked loudly as if in answer. A chorus of loud roars and plaintive calls rose from the mud along the line of bushes. He laughed heartily; doubtless it was their love-song. He felt affectionate towards the frogs and listened, pleased with the noisy life near him. When the moon peeped above the trees he felt the old impatience and the old restlessness steal over him. Why was she so late? True, it was a long way to come with a single paddle. With what skill and what endurance could those small hands manage a heavy paddle! It was very wonderful—such small hands, such soft little palms that knew how to touch his cheek with a feel lighter than the fanning of a butterfly’s wing. Wonderful! He lost himself lovingly in the contemplation of this tremendous mystery, and when he looked at the moon again it had risen a hand’s breadth above the trees. Would she come? He forced himself to lay still, overcoming the impulse to rise and rush round the clearing again. He turned this way and that; at last, quivering with the effort, he lay on his back, and saw her face among the stars looking down on him.
Where does this come from? You can’t blame it on raging 19th century romanticism. By 1893, even the most rhapsodically kitsch descriptions of undying young love were tempered by gentle sentimental ironies. In that most operatic novel of all, I Promessi Sposi, written in the 1820’s, the lovers do not lose their heads to this extent.
According to Wikipedia (Sept. 28, 2:14PM), Conrad “was well read, particularly in Polish Romantic literature.” Perhaps the source of his improbable Dain and Nina can be found there.
[According to Wikipedia, (Sept. 27, 3:30PM): "Conrad was a reserved man, wary of showing emotion. He scorned sentimentality; his manner of portraying emotion in his books was full of restraint, skepticism and irony."
I have edited that passage, so that Wikipedia now (Sept. 27, 3:48PM) reads: "Conrad was a reserved man, wary of showing emotion. He scorned sentimentality. With the exception of his first novel, Almayer's Folly, his manner of portraying emotion in his books was full of restraint, skepticism and irony."]
Almayer’s Folly is gloriously Orientalist; its stereotypes conform to common preconceptions of an exotic East. The novel, though, is not racist in the way that Kipling sometimes is. True, the European characters (the possessive father is Dutch) are individualized, as the non-Europeans are not, but they are not afforded moral or intellectual superiority. In fact, if anything, quite the opposite. The behavior of the Europeans in Almayer’s Folly confirms that the stereotyping of “the white man” as naive and shallow, by the novel’s Borneans and Arabs, is right on target.
Anything I have to say about Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly will be from the point of view of having the novel fresh in my mind when I saw the film. Most viewers of the film will see it more freshly, so to speak; even viewers who read the novel as recently as a few months ago will not be constantly comparing the film and the novel as I was, who had finished the book sixteen hours before I saw the movie. Suffice it to say that the movie is not operatic. The setting is contemporary. Whatever there is of the passion of young love is one-sided; Nina likes Dain well enough, but she’s not in love with him: he’s her ticket out. There are beautiful shots and plenty of the usual Akerman... I think “infelicities” is a better word than “flaws.” Most of Conrad’s colorful characters are missing. Come to think of it, I don’t think that providing comic relief in her films was on Akerman’s agenda.
An interesting question is: was it a good thing or a bad thing that I was still involved the book when I saw the movie. Would it have been better to have seen it without preconceptions, as a unique work of art? or was my experience of the film enriched by having the book fresh in my mind? I won’t try to answer that.