Taking Joseph Conrad’s first novel, about a Dutch fortune seeker trapped in a loveless marriage and stranded at a river trading post in the Malaysian jungle, Chantal Akerman updates the material from the late 1890s to the 1950s, and uses it as a springboard for an examination of the bankruptcy of colonialism through the struggle between a European father and Malaysian mother for possession of their daughter. In this sense the film is more about the novel than it is an adaptation of it. Conrad’s scenario remains intact: having married Zahira (Sakhna Oum), the Malaysian adopted daughter of trading post operator Lingard (Marc Barbé), in the expectation that he will inherit Lingard’s promised wealth, Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) finds himself supervising a failing enterprise while Lingard is off chasing rumors of hidden gold mines. But Akerman relegates this to the background in favor of a narrative whose central tension is the standoff between Almayer and Zahira, whose intransigent Otherness puts them at loggerheads over the future of their daughter Nina (Aurora Marion), whom the devoted Almayer has sent to a boarding school in order to ready her for a life in Europe. Lingard, however, has squandered his money on his fruitless quests, and so for Akerman, it’s Almayer’s hopeless dream (and not his failed trading scheme as in Conrad’s novel) that represents his tragic “folly.” The cumulative effect of the director’s trademark long takes and slow tracking shots, steeped in an atmosphere of tropical languor, is to accentuate the sense of becalmed lassitude and the inevitable entropy of the colonial ethos.
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