The Conradian: Review

By Andrew Francis, Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge

La Folie Almayer(2011) directed and with a sceenplay by Chantal Akerman

Cast: Stanislas Merhar, Aurora Marion, Zac Andriansolo, Solida Chan, Marc Barbé, Sakhna Oum. Producers: Patrick Quinet, Chantal Akerman Director of photography: Rémon Fromont

Announcing itself as “librement adapté” from Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly, Chantal Akerman’s film is set in the present-day in what is said during the film to be Malaysia, which is also the location, according to some commentators on the film, of Conrad’s novel. The film was shot, however, in Cambodia, including recognizably in Phnom Penh, and much of the speech is in Khmer. Conrad’s setting was not, of course, British possessions on the Malay Peninsula, nor the later Malaysia, but the little-known – at least to Europeans – east Borneo in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and thus for many readers and viewers a location further removed both then and now in fact and imagination from Malaya/Malaysia.

It is not necessarily productive to compare a free adaptation in detail with its original. But noting some differences and similarities is useful for understanding the filmmaker’s (and the novelist’s) different creations. Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly is located with abundant historical specificity in what was an outpost of the colonial enterprise – in the buitenbezittingen or Outer Possessions of the Dutch East Indies.

Within that specificity lie, in varying degrees, Arab, Malay, Dyak, and Chinese elements, British as well as Dutch colonialism, Malay territorial encroachment, independent Siam (now Thailand), and varieties of globalized and local trading. The novel embraces a variety of cultures, ethnicities, and histories, and their clashes, not least the resistance of Malays and Sulus to colonial intrusion. Babalatchi, Lakamba, Bulangi, Taminah, Abdullah, Mrs Almayer, Dain, Nina, Lingard, Almayer, the Dutch naval officers, and others are all part of the complex expression by Conrad of these varied elements and the context of Almayer’s decline.

In Akerman’s film this range of characters, histories, and trade, is reduced significantly. Almayer is more expatriate than colonial. Virtually nothing of the context of the location in which he has failed as a trader is provided, a factor that, with the present-day, non-colonial setting, creates an emphasis more on the personal follies of a Lingard or an Almayer without those follies lying at the same time in a context of wider colonial attitudes or motivation.

Nevertheless, it is made evident that Almayer’s is an alien presence, that he is a man separated from those around him by culture and by his ardent desire to leave rather than stay, and to leave enriched. It is Lingard (looking, oddly for readers of the novel, not too different in age from Almayer) who in the film forces Nina to go to boarding-school elsewhere in South-east Asia to be Europeanized. The scene in which Lingard is seeking out Nina and her mother in a watery jungle so as to remove Nina to school is a powerful evocation of that act’s cultural and emotional rupture, and although Mrs Almayer’s pride in her Sulu roots and her sense of independence and ambition are not conveyed in the film, the emphasis again being more cultural than colonial, the rightness of her cultural and parental response is particularly strong in this sequence.

The pace of the film is markedly slow, its speech spare. People, place, and event are frequently conveyed by long-duration shots, for example, of Nina hungrily eating a meal after being sent away from the school and onto the street because Lingard has not paid the fees. These shots, though sometimes longer than their effect warrants, heighten the feeling of the Almayer family’s and Lingard’s lives as clogged, suspended, and unviable. A dreamlike, deferred, existence is created by the pace and by the concentration on image, an effect which is magnified by dialogue which is clipped, often incomplete, and appears on occasion almost improvised.

Under similar visual treatment the jungle is a pervasive, inescapable presence, yet protective of its own people, a presence in which Europeans make no sense or headway, even commercial. These impressions are supported by the two main musical references in the film, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the mamba song "Sway" performed by Gene Martin, which appear at first to be an incongruous pairing. But the choice of these as motifs throughout the film is effective.

Both works can be regarded on one level as evoking forms of infatuation, but in its marked contrast with the film’s characters and their enterprises, the tragic grandeur of Wagner’s work seems to deny any possibility of the film sharing in such elevated notions or of their being in any way available to its characters. The two motifs also highlight the absence in the film of any portrayal of profound or intense feeling, suggesting too the impossibility of their existence there, including the spontaneity and passion implicit in infatuation.

The Dain of the film is an insurgent, unappealing and brusque, his followers menacing. Nina’s motivation in going away with him is not love for a romantic royal figure as in the novel, albeit the novel’s Dain also stands for Malay statehood and for values uncorrupted and more natural than those of the Europeans of whom Nina has experience. Nina in the film does not love Dain but thinks she will. Her motivation in leaving with him is at least partly escape at any cost, but also a belief that she may as a result be able to restore in herself both hope and feeling.

This desire by Nina for redemptive escape even without love is a telling reading of the consequences of a colonial cultural intrusion seen as only ever taking away, and of the poverty and shallowness of its standards and beliefs. We are not told of Nina and Dain’s life together but, at the beginning of the film we have seen Dain, as we later know him to have been, as a singer in a bar and abruptly stabbed to death. One of the women dancers behind him in his act is, as we again later come to know, Nina. After his stabbing Nina remains and sings, for the first of several times in the film, the eucharistic "Ave, Verum Corpus."

This initial and lengthy rendering of sacred Christian words derived from Europe, no doubt the product of her schooling, is sung with blank facial expression and with no suggestion of personal engagement with the words, and performs in effect the European-become-Other. Nina’s rendition of a core item of Christian faith, figured without meaningful context as merely vocal production, suggests – perhaps even ironically – a faith that can only impotently haunt but not vivify an Asia no longer the East of Europeans’ conjuring and rough imposition.

The casualness of Dain’s murder, and its being barely registered in the bar, underline its wastefulness, a wastefulness entirely appropriate given that the murderer is Chen, the servant of Lingard appointed by him to look after Nina and her mother: undertaken misguidedly on behalf of and in subject complicity with Europeans, it symbolizes well the misconceptions and maladjustments of such Europeans abroad.

The strong impression the film gives of what is enduring is the mass of people, not isolated individuals, in the bustling city; active, moving people in association with each other, a people rightly and solidly of their place. Perhaps this is what diverted Dain from his armed resistance, embracing him in its apparently unstoppable normality. It is a contrast both vivid and reflective with the dislocated, dissociated Europeans. But this film, though taking its inspiration from Conrad’s novel, is more meditation than narrative.

A certain sense of difficulty with the film’s apparent artistic endeavour is perhaps due to the fact that the gulf between an urban Asian setting of the present-day and the film’s plainly older, colonial, roots of Lingard and Almayer is difficult to bridge. These roots also seem to demand more narrative movement, against which the lingering images become occasionally longueurs. Nevertheless, seen as more collage of images than plot, the film poses forcibly to the filmgoer, as much in recollection as in the viewing, a variety of cross-cultural issues as well as the timeless follies of which mankind is capable in forcing others to conform to greedy, delusional and private dreams of paradise.

© 2011 Andrew Francis







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ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be a useful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.