By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
By Eva-Lynn Jagoe
At the end of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly, the title character, a benighted Dutch trader at a failed Malaysian outpost, is deserted by his beloved half-caste daughter Nina and determines to forget her before he dies. “He had a fixed idea that if he should not forget before he died he would have to remember to all eternity,” writes Conrad. “Certain things had to be taken out of his life, stamped out of sight, destroyed, forgotten.” The last pages of the novel narrate this implacable determination, and in the end Almayer is found dead with a calm look on his face, showing that he “had been permitted to forget before he died.” Chantal Akerman’s La folie Almayer is not so kind: in its final, unbroken, minutes-long shot, it considers the ravaged face of Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) as he is forced to confront his folly, to face it in all its unrelenting horror. The extraordinary opacity of this final shot is inversely related to the psychological cataclysm taking place within Almayer’s mind, his annihilating rush of self-knowledge depicted not through (conventional) drama but duration—thus remaining, in a crucial dimension, unreadable, unknowable to the audience. Yet it is this very tension between knowing and not knowing that gives this final shot its remarkable, wrenching power: a painful plenitude that evokes physically, phenomenologically, the self-annihilating folly/delusion to which Almayer has willingly yielded.
Folly (from the French fou) is something which goes beyond a fault or flaw. It is something that one falls prey to, stoops to, gives in to; a madness that consumes the whole being. Unlike Conrad, Akerman does not make this madness a property of Almayer’s (“la folie de Almayer”), but rather conjoins it with his being; she gives the madness a name and a face. Each madness has a specificity which renders it unique; each madness is one’s own, particular to the coordinates and disorientations of oneself. That self is, of course, an inherited one, formed through the biological and cultural memories and experiences that shape it, and thus la folie Almayer is not one that resides solely in Almayer, but in the child he haplessly, helplessly consigns to a life between two worlds.
Akerman evokes the lineal descent of this madness through a circular structure. In the opening sequence, a listless karaoke performance is interrupted by sudden violence: the young man lip-synching on stage is stabbed by an assailant and pulled out of the frame by onlookers, while his backup dancers scatter, leaving a single girl still dancing vacantly to the canned music. “Nina—he’s dead,” an offscreen voice utters; and as the news gradually seems to sink in, the camera moves in to a close shot of the girl we do not yet know as Almayer’s daughter as she begins to sing, hesitantly and then intensely, a religious song in Latin. The studied obliqueness immediately invites our questions: Why is this dark-skinned woman singing a Christian hymn in archaic European Latin? What does her mounting euphoria signify? Release and relief at the brutal end of an abusive relationship, an unlikely salvation, or an irretrievable descent into madness?
The questions posed at the beginning have not been answered by the time of the mirrored final shot, though the lineaments of the muted narrative have given them some context. Almayer has resided at his forsaken outpost for a number of years at the urging of the entrepreneur and explorer Lingard (Marc Barbé), who has promised him wealth and urges him to think of himself as a cultured European—even as he coerces the deluded trader into a loveless marriage with his ward, a Malaysian woman who stubbornly rejects the language and culture that is forced upon her. Nina is the outcome of this undesired union, and for Almayer his one one raison d’être apart from the illusory bonds of race and class. When Lingard—who, it would seem, orchestrates all aspects of Almayer’s life—insists that Nina must be sent to a European boarding school, Almayer begs his “benefactor” to let her remain, saying that he loves her and she him, that she is all he has in this uncivilized jungle. Lingard is adamant, and essentially challenges Almayer to prove his faith in the future that he has been promised. Like Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Almayer submits, demonstrating his unwavering fidelity to the religion of profit, white superiority, and culture that Lingard preaches.
As Nina grows up in the boarding school, she is watched by an aged Malaysian man who, in a narratological shift, assumes the interim role of narrator, recounting the events in a past tense and thus giving the audience a hindsight that the characters do not have. Hearing the religious songs from within the school’s walls interrupted by a teacher’s voice reprimanding Nina, the man recounts the outcome of this failed educational imposition: Nina’s ostracization due to her race, her inability to become “one of them.” With this retrospective voiceover that already knows the tale’s tragic end, the film enters the temporal realm of the fable. Yet the “native informant” who relays this is not empowered by his omniscience; like the doomed Almayers, father and daughter, he is trapped in a silence that allows their tragedy to unfold. Up to whom is it to speak out against folly? Almayer and Nina know the misery their separation causes them, but cannot speak it aloud; he never once writes to her during their years of separation, nor she to him. Abraham and Isaac’s misery, Almayer and Nina’s; both are discounted in the service of a greater good, a grand delusion that promises metaphysical salvation in place of a beloved child’s voice, the feel of his or her arms lovingly clasped around your neck.
Unlike Isaac, however, Nina knows that she has been sacrificed on the altar of her father’s god. Expelled from school when Lingard dies, leaving her without financial support, the teenaged Nina (Aurora Marion) returns to her father and mother, the latter’s years of mute refusal having now reduced her to near-catatonia. Listlessly wandering the jungle, Nina meets a Malaysian man, a smuggler and mercenary; dead to emotion and desire, she chooses to go away with him, her knowing acceptance of a dead-end life (as the opening sequence makes clear) a sullen rebuke to her father’s baseless words and passive protestations of love. As with her mother’s, Nina’s rebellion is a negation: a defeat that reveals the fragility and weakness, the impotence of the ideology that has defined her existence. Pursuing the fleeing lovers into the jungle, Almayer discovers them making love and peers at them through the foliage, his pale, hollowed face a stark contrast to their brown skin, dark eyes and black hair. When Nina rejects his appeals to return with him, choosing her Malaysian identity over inculcated white rituals, he mutters to himself “I am white, I am white” —reminding himself of the “duty” he had forgotten in his fear of losing his daughter: to maintain the dignity and superiority of his race, to not adulterate its purity, to not “go native.”
Almayer’s love for Nina clashes with, and is ultimately overcome by, his irreconcilable fidelity to an absolutist religion of race. In Almayer’s mind, his Malaysian wife is darkly malevolent, his daughter is pure love, the jungle is untamed savagery; he cannot conceive of Nina as the product of two cultures, as a grey in his starkly chiaroscuroed world. She has either to be all white or all black, either his or completely lost to him. Almayer’s folly is that he refuses to acknowledge how his own feelings and inclinations contradict the sterile worldview to which he subscribes, how his own existence intersects with those Others whose full humanity he cannot admit, and how he draws them into the madness to which he eventually succumbs. In that final shot, his illusions shattered and his mind slipping away, Almayer shares the space with his attentive and faithful servant posed in a doorway at the back of the frame, the man’s dark, shadowed, immobile body a contrast to Almayer’s shockingly pale visage. The white man figures death, destruction, madness; the brown man has cared for him throughout without the ability to stop him, to wake him from his folly (a previous scene shows a similar relationship of loyal patience from the abused servant of Lindgard, who cares for him in his dying moments). So he waits on him instead, watching, without judging, in a patient inscrutability that shows the ways that the folly touches them all.
So the film has come full circle, then, from the bodily death of the opening sequence to the irreparable destruction of a mind at the conclusion. But while there is a formal continuity, and closure, to the repetition of distance and duration between Nina’s introductory close-up and Almayer’s final collapse, the film denies any comforting sense of finality. Not afforded the structure of montage to tie up loose ends, we endure instead a confrontation with an unmitigated pain. The camera witnesses a ruined man faced with the extent of his folly and its repercussions, and one knows, watching those memories and understandings cross his sunken eyes, his pale and trembling lips, that he will not survive the realization sane. Much as the audience is denied the explanatory potential, the normalcy of editing, Almayer also cannot edit anything out of his realizations, cannot save himself from madness. There is a horror in fully knowing one’s present. That degree of knowledge is, in a “sane” life, glimpsed at intervals, like a swinging door that opens and shuts; if it is known all at once, without a break, a reassertion of the narrative we have constructed around and for ourselves, it is unbearable. That swinging-door metaphor could extend as well to the practice of montage: something is seen, then another image follows it, and a narrative is pieced together out of a sequence of cuts and sutures, reassuring us with its explanatory potential. Montage keeps madness at bay, as normalcy and understanding is reasserted; a long take forces the confrontation between reality and the traumatic Real, that which resists signification and incorporation into comprehensibility or continuity.
What we witness in Akerman’s final, extended shot is Almayer’s tortured oscillation between opening and shutting, knowing and not knowing: we watch him understand something, deny it, confront it again, shrug it off, not be able to control the spill of tears that have irrevocably exposed it to his consciousness. It is as if he is trying to create his own montage, and cannot make the film cut, jump to another scene. His folly of not knowing, of not opening the door to an understanding of his motivations and his manias, turns, at the moment of recognition, into a madness that condemns him to a harsh and unavoidable downfall. Thus he says, twice, “Tomorrow I would have forgotten my daughter.” Not “I will have forgotten” but “I would have…” If what? If tomorrow could arrive, but it won’t, for there is no longer the possibility of a future. The present, brought to an impasse by the folly of his past, is all he has. He is a man who has never lived in his present, always yearning for a European paradise, imagining that one day he will be wealthy, and that his daughter will return to him with trust and love. In the last scene, he is confronted with the selfish, fruitless Real of his present, and he can no longer imagine a moment in which he will be able to delude himself further. Akerman, unlike Conrad, will not allow Almayer to forget, will not give him that blessed peace. She will not forgive him for having sacrificed his daughter to a delusion, for having submitted his own self-knowledge to an external authority, for sacrificing his present to the baseless promise of a future imagined by another. For Almayer to not truly know his desires is only human; to wilfully ignore them and submit them to another’s demands is also human, but it constitutes a moral failure that devastates not only himself, but his daughter as well.
Akerman’s choice of Merhar to play Almayer establishes a continuity with his depiction of Simon in La captive (2000). In that film, too, his possessive and deluded character loses the woman that he has so obsessively tried to create, manipulate, keep, know. These men are deluded into thinking that they can maintain an imaginary order predicated on their colour, gender, or class, and attempt to control the women they think they love. The end of each of the films sees them denied that desire, and suffering for their folly. Akerman’s films are not vindictive towards her deluded protagonists, however; rather, compassionately yet firmly, she forces them to finally know, to not forget. In the extended takes that linger on Simon and Almayer during the time in which they fully register the interplay of knowing and not knowing, we enter into a dream experience where the workings of the unconscious are glimpsed, where the characters are unable to delude themselves any further; and where we, sharing the space and time of their horrible realization, are unable to remain complacent in our (false) distance from them, are unable to deny the everyday delusions and deceptions we practice upon our own selves as a barrier against the terrifying weight of self-knowledge. One could call Akerman’s durées “demanding,” but their demands are as modest, and all-encompassing, as the mere perpetuation of our existence. All she asks is that we sit in the dark and let whatever it is that’s going to happen in us, happen.