Sunday, January 01, 2012

First Look ’12: Almayer’s Folly

Festival season now starts a little earlier. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel will be the opening night film of the inaugural edition of the first film fest of the year sure to make critics and scholars sit up and take note. Of course, it is hardly Chantal Akerman’s first film, but it is something of a departure for the Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1800 Bruxelles auteur. Fittingly, Akerman’s foray into tropical malaise, Almayer’s Folly, kicks off the first annual First Look series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.

There is something elusive about Conrad that doggedly resists the transfer to the big screen. Yet, his work has been a siren call to filmmakers, resulting in flawed masterworks like Apocalypse Now and Lord Jim. Such is the case with Akerman’s Folly, except less so.

As per Conrad, Kaspar Almayer is an unhappy man. He married the mixed race daughter of his adventurer mentor, Captain Lingard, in hopes of a prospective inheritance. Instead, Lingard has frittered away his fortune and sanity in search of a rumored treasure. Trapped in a loveless and impoverished marriage, Almayer’s only solace is his daughter Nina, but her resentment of westerners’ arrogant and abusive ways very definitely extends to her father.

Frankly, learning of a new Conrad film adaptation is sort of like hearing an out of shape friend has entered a marathon. You admire their ambition and hope they pull it off, but remain skeptical. If nothing else, Akerman completely nails the atmosphere of exotic alienation. Watching Folly will make viewers feel like a corpulent western expatriate sweating profusely in a cream-colored suit. However, a little of that humid torpor goes a long way.

Clearly, Folly was conceived as a mood piece, but the narrative slack is awfully conspicuous. At times, the cast seem more like props for Akerman to pose than actors interpreting characters. Still, Aurora Marion palpably radiates bitterness and contempt as Nina and Stanislas Merhar has some quietly forceful moments as Almayer.

Set in Malaysia but filmed in Cambodia, Folly is indeed something of a mixed bag. Yet, it is undeniably intriguing to watch a filmmaker of Akerman’s stature take on the enigmatic Conrad. While it can certainly drag in-the-moment, it is a fascinating film to look back on as a whole. Of note to serious cineastes, Folly is an impressively high profile launch for the first ever First Look. It screens once and only once (second looks are up to somebody else) this Friday (1/6), with Akerman in attendance at the Museum of the Moving Image’s historic Paramount Studio home.