Even though the Anglo-Polish writer Conrad was 38 years old when he left the British merchant marine to devote himself to literature, his first novel Almayer’s Folly is a young man’s book. A bitterly ironic story about a Dutch businessman in Borneo who sends his biracial daughter to a Catholic boarding school in the the hope of eventually passing her off as white, it is saved from being overly downbeat by its anti-colonial message, and rich, poetic language. While Almayer’s Folly is not quite as much of a masterpiece as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the “young” Joseph Conrad was so far ahead of his time that today’s “social justice warriors” on social media might even call him a “white ally,” if of course a highly “problematic” one.
No social justice warrior would ever dismiss Chantal Akerman as “problematic,” partly because she’s arguably the greatest female filmmaker who ever lived, but mostly because so few people in the United States have ever heard her name. La Folie Almayer, her penultimate film, which she made 4 years before committing suicide in 2015 at the age of 65, has only three reviews at the Internet Movie Database. Sadly, it’s easy to understand why it’s not likely to find a popular audience. A faithful adaptation, and yet a radical deconstruction of Conrad’s novel, it comes at the end, not the beginning, the deep cold Winter, not the enthusiastic Spring of a long, distinguished artistic career. Akerman strips all the poetry off Conrad’s somber yet romantic anti-colonial meditation, and reveals, not only the delusional thinking of the white imperialist mindset, but her own despair. If Conrad’s novel is pessimistic, Akerman’s film is dark like clinical depression.
Like the young Joseph Conrad, the late Chantal Akerman deserves more attention, if only because her dramatization of the spiritually corrosive effects of white supremacy is so clear thinking and uncompromising. After a surreal, David Lynch-like opening, we meet Almayer, played by longtime Akerman collaborator Stanislas Merhar. Almayer, who lives in a ramshackle house deep in the jungle — the film was made in Cambodia — is French, not Dutch, as he is in Conrad’s novel, but the basic outlines of his character are the same. He is a white man separated from his own people. Come to the far-East to make his fortune, he has ended up a prisoner in the jungle. A client of a shadowy entrepreneur named Captain Lingard, he has enough money to survive, but not enough to get back to Europe.
A few years before, in exchange for being let in on the ground floor of a gold mine deep in the jungle, Almayer had reluctantly agreed to marry a Malaysian woman named Zahira. Lingard has now returned for Nina, Almayer’s biracial daughter, in whom Almayer had invested most his of his hopes for the future after the gold mine failed. Why Lingard had wanted a European husband for Zahira is not entirely clear, either in the novel or the film, but the marriage has been a disaster. Zahira and Almayer hate each other. Now that Lingard wants a French, Catholic education for Nina the way he wanted a white husband for her mother, Zahira rebels. She grabs Nina and takes her into the jungle, trying to save her from the kind of forced assimilation to European ways Lingard and Almayer had attempted, and failed, to impose on her. But it’s no use. Almayer and Lingard chase them down like wild animals and ship Nina off to the city.
A decade later, Nina, now a young woman in her late teens, returns to Almayer’s compound. Almayer has not seen her since she was a little girl, his submissive relationship with Lingard evident by the way he had not been able to get his boss to tell him the address of his daughter’s boarding school. Along the way back, she meets a young Asian man in his 20s named Dain Maroola. It is here where the differences between the “young” Conrad and the elderly Chantal Akerman become most evident. For Joseph Conrad, Dain Maroola becomes Romeo to Almayer’s Capulet, the vital young man who rescues the young girl from her imprisonment by the patriarchy. For Chantal Akerman, no man can rescue a woman from European imperialism and from the patriarchy, even if he is a young man of color who kills two white men, and escapes the police with the help of her mother.
Chantal Akerman may have had pale skin and blue eyes, but as the daughter of Polish Holocaust Survivors, strictly speaking, she would not have been considered white. In a long sequence, where Nina attempts to express to Dain just how miserable she was in Lingard’s Catholic boarding school, we begin to see the ambiguous feelings Akerman had towards being brought up as a French woman, raised in a country that collaborated with the Nazis. What makes La Folie Almayer a great film, both in spite of and because of its difficulty, is how it dramatizes a young woman who, at 17-years-old, is already dead, spiritually murdered by European imperialism and patriarchy. Unlike Conrad’s Nina, who declares that she’s in love with Dain and willing to die for him, Akerman’s Nina can’t return to the jungle, can’t be brought back to life by sex or romance. She doesn’t love Dain, she said, “maybe not yet, maybe not ever.” Just like Chantal Akerman, who achieved success as a filmmaker in her 20s, yet still committed suicide 40 years later, Nina’s body may survive for another 50 years, but she may never be able to feel genuinely alive.
Chantal Akerman became a casualty of the Holocaust in 2015. Nina, the daughter of Almayer, a submissive white dupe of empire and racism, has been condemned to walk the earth as a zombie. It’s interesting to think about what Conrad, who attempted suicide in his 20s, would have thought of Akerman’s adaptation of his first novel. My guess is he would have approved.