Tropical Melancholia: Director Chantal Akerman on Her Best Work in a Decade
Chantal Akerman discusses her new film “Almayer’s Folly.”
A critical figure among woman filmmakers, Chantal Akerman‘s distinguished career spans 34 years; her latest film may be her best work in a decade. At The House Next Door / Slant, Fernando F. Croce writes that Akerman’s new film Almayer’s Folly, a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel set in Indochina, could easily be “a companion piece to Akerman’s 2000 masterpiece La Captive, another tale of obsessive drives hitting like tropical maladies.” Also at The House Next Door / Slant, Phil Coldiron distinguishes the two: “Where La Captive used a taut, dynamic camera to craft a level of Hitchcockian precision that Akerman used to carve into [Marcel] Proust’s memory, [in Almayer’s Folly] the effect of her numerous tracks is closer to Alain Resnais in the ’70s: a tool for maintaining a continuity across multiple times, spaces, and registers in order to draw a full picture that is strictly cinematic.” In his eloquent introduction to his interview with Akerman for MUBI, Darren Hughes makes his own comparison: “Both turn brief literary passages into central visual motifs: a bathtub scene in Proust, for example, and two young lovers hiding beneath a thick patch of fronds in [Joseph] Conrad.”
With Almayer’s Folly yet to achieve theatrical distribution, Fandor provides the opportunity to view La Captive and watch this filmmaker at her best as she explores a tale of young love entangled by obsession.
WATCH LE CAPTIVE ON FANDOR
The aquiline views of Toronto from the terraces of Nikki Beach on the 6th floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox provide a privileged perspective, and that privilege extended into the opportunity to sit down with Akerman at the 36th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss the North American premiere of Almayer’s Folly (2011), her first narrative feature in seven years. My thanks to Darin Darakananda of Murphy PR for facilitating the interview.
Michael Guillén: Chantal, it’s an honor to meet you today. I’m interested not only in cinema but in intermedial practices.
Chantal Akerman: Well, I do a lot of that.
Guillén: Yes. So I was hoping we could converse a bit about that?
Akerman: It’s very complicated.
Guillén: Could you speak about your necessary departures from Conrad’s novel? What you felt you had to change to make this story your film?
Akerman: Well, I was under a shock when I read one of the first sequences―it was strange the way it affected me because nothing had ever happened to me like that―but, it was the sequence where the father said, “Come back to me. Come back to me. Come back to me.” I cried. On the same day I watched Tabu (1931), which I had rented from Netflix. In combination with the scene that affected me from Conrad’s novel, watching Tabu created an electricity. That’s why I decided to make the film.
I was not interested in colonialism and all those things; but, much more in feelings. And also in the nature because I had never shot nature. I didn’t know this when I started making the film, but I can see now that I made the film more freely than I usually do. I would say to Stanislas Merhar, the actor who played Almayer [also the lead actor in La Captive], “Okay, you can go from there to there with that scene” and he would never stop at the same moment. We filmed it as if it were a documentary. I felt he needed that. I felt that if I directed him to stop and look at the camera, he wouldn’t express himself the same way. It was the first time I directed like that.
Guillén: For me, Almayer’s Folly is a striking departure from your previous work. For someone who has not shot much nature, as you’ve just indicated, I was impressed with Raymond Fromont‘s nature cinematography, particularly all the scenes of the rainforest at night and the sheen of moonlight reflected off water and leaves. It reminded me of the rainforest fantasies of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Can you speak to your decision to shoot so much at night?
Akerman: Because you can show only what you want to show. When you shoot in the daytime, you see everything. In a way, even though it wasn’t about nature all of the time, or the city, when you filmed the boat at night, it was just a boat with some tree behind it. If I had filmed the boat in the daytime, it would have looked naturalistic and Almayer’s Folly is not a naturalistic film at all.
Guillén: No, not at all. Again, like Apichatpong’s fantasies, Almayer’s Folly had a dream-like quality about it.
Akerman: It was totally dream-like and that’s the first time I’ve done something like that. I was so happy to do something different.
Guillén: And even though you admit that you were not focusing on themes of colonialism, your film fits within a lineage of films that inflect the debilitating effects of colonialism. I was reminded of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie, Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava, and John Duigan’s Wide Sargasso Sea: narratives wherein (usually) British people are on assignment (i.e., in exile) in some Third World country where their soul becomes sick.
Akerman: Yes, Almayer does lose his soul. Except when Nina (Aurora Marion) comes back and for a moment he is well again.
Akerman: Well, okay, but to be totally honest Almayer and Nina are both me because I am like that. Sometimes I am full of energy and sometimes I lose myself. It’s about loss for Almayer. For Nina, when you think again to the beginning of the film you realize, okay, she can sing and through that she may have a life. Though it’s as if she has taken drugs and is hallucinating. Daïn (Zac Andrianasolo) dies and Nina steps up to the camera and sings a song that she was not allowed to sing at the school where she was raised; the school where they would tell her, “Only two bars. Only two bars.” She could never express herself. But suddenly in this kind of whorehouse she sings and expresses herself. If she had sung in a church, that would have been totally boring; but, in a whorehouse…? You feel that she’s starting to live. And it’s actually the actress Aurora singing.
Guillén: I recall an interview where you described how your father had sent you to a boarding school against your wishes and that you felt exiled. Were you using that experience to inform this narrative?
Akerman: Well, of course my father wanted me to have a normal life; but―unlike Almayer―he was not dreaming of being rich for me. My father wanted me to get married and have children and things like that; but, that was not Almayer’s case. Almayer wanted Nina to go to Europe with him where he wanted to live with her as her future husband.
Guillén: There was a bit of that incestuous quality in their interaction―least on his part―that reminded me of a fairytale where the king is overprotective of a princess as a gesture of maintaining the kingdom.
Akerman: Yes. Also, because she looks like a princess.
Guillén: I was reading Leslie Felperin’s Variety review of Almayer’s Folly….
Akerman: The Variety review was a bad thing. And The Hollywood Reporter review was also very bad.
Guillén: What struck me in Felperin’s criticism of your film was her description of your “too-breezy disregard for cultural specifics” and her complaint that you make “no attempt to disguise the fact the pic was shot in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the locals speak Khmer instead of Malay, even though the characters keep talking about the fact they’re in Malaysia. The dissonance is probably intentional, but it could too easily be interpreted as a sort of arrogant Western carelessness that lumps together everything in the East as one big undifferentiated place of Otherness.” As valid as her critique might be, I found it unfortunate that she couldn’t suspend disbelief enough to accept the film on its own dream-like and exploratory terms. It made me wonder how important the suspension of disbelief is for you as a filmmaker when making a historical narrative? Do you understand what I’m asking?
Akerman: No, I’m sorry, I don’t really understand; but, anyway, the point is that Nina came from a school where she was taught to speak French and English, and she had some memories of Khmer, which came to the surface when she met the young man who spoke Khmer. In the meantime, there’s that Chinese guy Chen (Solida Chan) who is smoking opium and he’s dreaming for her to meet a nice guy but at the end you see the reality. Nina’s mother Zahira (Sakhna Oum) kills the other guy so that the police will think Daïn is dead. Of course, Zahira was speaking Khmer, Ali (Bunthang Khim) was speaking Khmer, and of course after a while Almayer knew Khmer―he couldn’t speak it but he could understand it―there is a mixture of languages in the film. The point being that everyone is like an outcast.
Guillén: Which comports with Fernando Croce’s observation that this intentional dissonance is less an eccentric gesture and more “a purposeful extension of the narrative’s inquiries into cultural identity and colonial uprooting.” Not only is there the confusion of languages but your casting incorporates a multiethnic cast. Felperin may have been technically correct that your film misrepresents Malaysia, but the sense of your representation is much more far-reaching and global.
Akerman: Aurora is one-quarter white―from Belgium―one-quarter Rwandan, and half Greek. She’s living in London where no one can determine where she’s from. The Indians speak to her, thinking she’s one of them. They don’t know. No one can tell where she’s from. When she came in to read for the first casting call, I told her simply to say, “I am not white―Je ne suis pas blanc” but to say it very dry. That meant something for her and when she said it, I went, “That’s it!”
Guillén: Another dream-like quality in your film is its depressive weight, its gravitas. Oddly enough, it reminded me of another film I’ve seen here at the Toronto International: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Have you seen Melancholia?
Akerman: Yes, I loved it.
Guillén: Not that your film and von Trier’s are stylistically the same, but they share the weight of the lost dream.
Akerman: Yes. Well, but in his film the lost dream is because the world is ending. In Almayer’s Folly it is the character of Almayer that is ending and becoming crazy. But you know what’s interesting? Von Trier and I use the same music for both films, which of course I didn’t know. He uses the song and I use the prelude.
Well, it’s very funny because ―when I speak about those two characters Almayer and Nina―I’m telling you those two characters are inspired by me. And when Lars von Trier has been asked why he makes such interesting films about women, he’s answered that he’s actually speaking about himself but has put women in his stead. For me, both Almayer and Nina are outcasts, just as I am outcast.
Guillén: Speaking of the music for your film, for days after seeing Almayer’s Folly I walked around Toronto singing “Sway” under my breath; it was a major ear worm. What an interesting choice! What inspired you to use Dean Martin’s cover version of that song?
Akerman: Because when I went to China, I realized that all that American music has been totally incorporated by the Asian world but they make something odd of it. For example, the way the girls were dancing behind him was not at all American. They take the music and they do something else with it, you know?When I was in Shanghai before the Olympic Games, I saw those two high towers. You saw Mona Lisa next to a duck next to a soup can. It’s hard to explain. Through the architecture, everything was brought to the same level. Okay, we said, “That’s from the 17th century Dutch. That is not a painting. Mona Lisa, of course, is from the Louvre.” But it’s like they don’t know. They project them in video on big towers and it flattens the art. I think it’s a form of release. If Walter Benjamin had still been alive, he would have written about it, even though it is―of course―already in his books. But I was not thinking of that when I made my film Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai. It came naturally.
Akerman: Instinct, yes. And in this film Almayer’s Folly even more than my other films because I made the film much more freely. I didn’t know this when I started the film, but my unconscious is speaking to the unconscious of everyone in the audience. But the problem with that is that many people don’t want to have anything to do with their unconscious. That’s why American critics insist, “A man is a man and a woman is a woman.” In my film, Almayer is not like Matt Damon. My film is gender-troubled.
Guillén: Which returns again to its dream-like ―i.e., unconscious―quality. And speaking of Almayer as the leading male character, and Stanislas Merhar’s portrayal of him, I was intrigued by how we saw him primarily in medium shot or long shot with his head bowed and his hair hiding his face until that final sequence where the camera comes in tight for a close-up, his head leans back, and his face is revealed in a shaft of illuminative sunlight. I wouldn’t say that it was a moment of redemption….
Akerman: But it’s the moment when you know that he has gone crazy, which is strange.
Guillén: It’s a clear departure from Conrad’s novel. That’s not how the novel ends.
Akerman: No, no, not at all. And in the novel, you know that with Conrad it is always about guilt and redemption? In my film there is no redemption because the concept of redemption is not in my Jewish background; redemption is Catholic. I took the theme of redemption out on purpose.
Guillén: If only Catholics could do the same. We’re brought up in such a way that we Catholicize existence….
Akerman: But what can you do if you are born Catholic and brought up Catholic?
Guillén: Let’s discuss the final scene where Almayer brings Nina and Daïn to the boat. I was struck by the image of Nina wading through the water carrying Daïn in her arms. Can you speak to that?
Akerman: Well, you know Zac Andrianasolo who played Daïn kept acting. I said, “Enough of men carrying women! Aurora, you are going to carry him. You are strong enough.” Andrianasolo protested, “Why should she carry me?” “Because I’ve decided like that,” I said to him. “Oh, okay, fine,” he said. Otherwise, it would have been a conventional image. When the woman carries the man, it is much less conventional.
Guillén: It was visually interesting for posing the question: “Why is he suddenly so weak and she’s so strong?” Carrying him to their alleged freedom.
Akerman: Because she needed the freedom much more than him. Well, I had no reason. When Andrianasolo asked me why, I said, “Because I decided.” I’m tired of seeing men carrying women all the time as an image of their saving them. It was more challenging to have her carrying him.
Guillén: I think the term you used earlier is apt: “gender-troubled.” In order to understand the evolution of culture, I think we need to come to terms with the fact that we are living in a gender-troubled culture or―for that matter―that our history is gender-troubled. We’re still relying on old concepts of gender that no longer apply.
Akerman: Yes. And also, I don’t believe in biological determinism. You can be more a woman than me.
Guillén: To be honest, I think I am! [Akerman barks out a laugh, raises her hand for a high five, and we slap palms, drawing attention from those around us.]
Akerman: But you see what I mean? What does it mean to be a man except that you have sperm and can give sperm to a woman to have a child? What does it mean?
Akerman: It’s a total construction. What does it mean to be a woman? Except that, okay, you are carrying the baby.
Guillén: In the press notes for Almayer’s Folly, you reference the work of Emmanuel Levinas and his ethics of the Other. I’m not familiar with him. Can you synopsize his work a bit and why it is important to you?
Akerman: He has written so many books. What has struck me in his work is his understanding of the egalitarian one-to-one relation. Levinas says that ―you see the face of someone else―you automatically hear the voice of God saying, “Thou shalt not kill.” I am very interested in that. So that’s why I framed so many shots where the characters are facing the audience.
Guillén: You did the same with architecture in Hôtel Monterey (1972), placing those spaces in direct relationship to the audience.
Akerman: Facing them, yes.
Guillén: I remember thinking at the time that I saw Hôtel Monterey, “Did Stanley Kubrick watch this film?” Have you ever had the opportunity to speak to Stanley Kubrick about whether or not he saw Hôtel Monterey and incorporated it into The Shining?
Akerman: Especially in the scene with the elevator. When I watched The Shining, I thought, “Well, it looks like Hôtel Monterey“, except that―you know―it’s that big actor Jack Nicholson getting crazy and the little boy with his tricycle and the woman who goes totally nuts because he’s gone nuts, not being able to write anymore. I can get nuts when I cannot write, you know.
Guillén: Name me a writer who hasn’t experienced that particular insanity. I think we all go a little nuts when we suffer writer’s block. When a really good film hits an audience and the audience goes a little bit crazy, I think it’s because ―as you said earlier―it’s a film that’s not letting you hide from your unconscious anymore; it’s a film that is revealing you to yourself through the film.
Akerman: Which is, again, why so many films―Almayer’s Folly included―are so difficult for American audiences.
Guillén: Let alone American critics. They’re asking me to wrap up here, Chantal, so I hope we can continue our conversation at another time.
Akerman: Me too.
Michael Guillén is a freelance film journalist and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He administers his own film site The Evening Class (http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com/) and is a contributing writer to several online and print venues.