La folie Almayer [Almayer’s Folly] (2011)

La folie Almayer
Director: Chantal Akerman
Writer: Chantal Akerman, Henry Bean, Nicole Brenez
Based on: Joseph Conrad‘s novel
Cast: Stanislas Merhar, Marc Barbé, Aurora Marion, Zac Andianas, Sakhna Oum, Solida Chan, Yucheng Sun, Bunthang Khim
Seen on: 30.12.2021

Content note: (critical treatment of) colonialism, mention of rape

Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) lives in the jungle in Malaysia, hoping to come to riches there, from trading or from finding gold. He is married to a Malaysian woman, Zahira (Sakhna Oum) whom he despises, much like he hates pretty much everything but their daughter Nina (Aurora Marion). When his patron Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé) comes to visit and insists that Nina needs an European education, to learn to be white, Almayer is reluctant to let Nina go, but gives in, even against Zahira’s protestations and attempts to run away with Nina. This decision further cements all of their desperation.

La folie Almayer is an interesting attempt to criticize colonialism that doesn’t always work as well as it should. But it does have many strengths that make it worth thinking about.

The film poster showing Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) sitting next to a record player, looking pensive.

I haven’t read Conrad’s novel, but judging by Heart of Darkness, the film La folie Almayer probably had to work to become outright critical of colonialism. In any case, Akerman’s take focuses on how colonialism and masculinity are intertwined. Lingard and Almayer are white men who command the indigenous people (the story is set in Malaysia, but as shot in Cambodia and partly in Khmer), Lingard more successfully so than Almayer. But the colonialization is played out in Zahira and in Nina, the biracial product of an arranged marriage and rape. When Almayer talkes about Zahira, his hatred of her is chilling, his refusal to see her as human at all.

On the contrary, Almayer professes to love Nina, but we don’t actually see him interact with her in any meaningful way until very late into the film when she spells out for him how fucked up her situation is. That Nina be educated into whiteness is the ultimate colonial endeavor, and both Lingard and Almayer are deeply invested in her. If Nina becomes truly white, they will have succeeded. But the truth is that it is simply not possible, and as hard as Nina tries at first, she is never accepted, never enough. In the end, she stops trying at all, and refuses to participate anymore. That refusal comes too late, though: it only happens after Nina already lost herself completely to the point that she describes herself as dead already.

Nina (Aurora Marion) and Daïn (Zac Andianas) sitting in th forest, talking.

The film takes away Nina’s ending in the beginning, in probably the film’s strongest scene. Generally, I’d say that Nina is the film’s best part – and it’s a pity that the film doesn’t seem to notice that and focuses a lot more on Almayer instead. While Merhar is rather magnetic in the role, I would have liked it if the film had put its attention elsewhere.

Still, there are interesting thoughts to be gleaned from the film, and the film does have beautiful cinematography. It just doesn’t quite have the force it could have had.

Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) standing in his house.

Summarizing: interesting enough.

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