directed by Chantal Akerman
An uninterrupted tracking shot marks a young woman, drifting on a moonlit barge with the stagnant current of a Malaysian river. She stands in the foreground; no middle ground is present. The composition makes the night seem flat behind her, a cardboard stage set ready to topple over at any moment. The figure is Nina, who has recently been expelled from a Parisian boarding school. The velvety darkness, grainy as a poor-quality projection, evokes both her placelessness and the artifice of the film itself.
Much of what we see in Almayer’s Folly is in motion: we float, pummel on foot, and judder as an engine shooting over cobbles. Thick fingers of foliage knock into the camera’s face, slowly sliding over its scalp. The lens tugs gently when on water, bobbing along with the gait of the boat supporting it, searching. It locates its quarry as the rainforest shore is broached. Dain, a self-confessed criminal, promises pathways to a mythical goldmine. Trustingly, we follow his lead.
Words by Elizabeth Brown
Music dominates the opening minutes of Almayer’s Folly. The columns of glittering water that grace the credits do so to the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In the first scene, six women move to ‘Sway’ in shaky synchronicity. A man mouths along onstage, until he is stabbed. Five of the dancers flee, but Nina remains, eyes empty. She awakes from her daze only when a disembodied voice informs her of the death, to calmly walk towards us and give a rendition of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus.
After the sonic saturation that marks the film’s start, the two classical compositions become formal markers, dispersed sparingly across the quiet, languid scenes. Their rarity exacerbates the divide between Nina and her father, Almayer. He believes that she should leave Malaysia to receive a ‘white girl’s education’, to visit the opera, to find a husband. She disagrees. When Nina describes fireworks as beautiful music, Almayer refutes her taxonomy: music is ‘Chopin, Debussy. Not this racket.’ His belief in the superiority of European culture is unwavering, and drives his attempts to salvage Nina from the supposedly savage lifestyle that he judges her to lead.
Words by John Wadsworth
More to discover
You can watch a trailer for Almayer's Folly here, and see a video essay on the film made by Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López for MUBI. Martin and López have also written an introduction to Chantal Akerman's work for Sight & Sound. Elisabeth Lebovici has written about Akerman's films for Senses of Cinema.
Question of the day
Certainly if I was trying to explain music to someone born deaf, I’d try fireworks. And the guilt of how expensive they are to set off only adds to the pleasure.
– Emma Donoghue, author of The Wonder, Frog Music, and Room (via The Brief →)
No. They can be heard as musical, but my personal perspective is that music can only be ‘made’ intentionally.
– Lewis Coenen-Rowe, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)