Chantal Akerman’s “return to fiction” takes as its source Joseph Conrad’s 1895 maiden voyage in full-length prose, the first published novel by a Polish captain of the British Merchant Marine. Originally set in Borneo, and shot in Cambodia (standing in for Malaysia), this free adaptation is arguably the farthest afield the filmmaker has gone to portray the displacements of the past that are carried within the heart. As demonstrated by The Captive (00) and her affinity for homebody extraordinaire Proust (or by 2006’s roombound Israel-set Là-bas) Akerman has never needed more than four walls and a couple of doorways—an obsession of hers—to frame her travels.
Indeed, the keynote image of Almayer’s Folly might be the titular washed-up Dutch trader (Stanislas Merhar of The Captive) marooned in the darkness of a shack, seated between two exits to the outside. His half-Malay daughter Nina (newcomer Aurora Marion) is an outcast at her Catholic school, unfulfilled, and a walking reminder of his failure to connect with either family or money. The verdant jungle that serves as backdrop is less dreamlike than saturnine in its tangles and shadows.
Greeted with lackluster early reviews on the festival circuit, Almayer’s Folly does not bowl one over but that might partly be because its unsung, borderless subject is malaise, and its transmission. Even when Nina belts out Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” in the arresting outdoorclub opening scene, her soaring song comes out of a death.