Chantal Akerman: Madwomen (and Men) in the Jungle

This interview was originally published at Mubi.

– – –

When discussing Almayer’s Folly, Chantal Akerman actively resists crediting the source material. Joseph Conrad’s first novel is set in Malaysia at the end of the 19th century and is a grotesque portrait of a young Dutch trader driven to madness by his own foolishness and avarice. A contemporary, sympathetic reading of the novel might commend it for its critique of the dehumanizing tendencies of colonialism, both on the colonized and the colonizer, but Akerman goes a few steps further. The film is less an adaptation than a loose, dream-like reimagining of its central conflict between a European man, his Asian wife, and their mixed-race daughter. Like Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which foregrounds the racist assumptions in Jane Eyre by giving life and a history to Charlotte Bronte’s exotic “madwoman in the attic,” Akerman rebalances the weight of Conrad’s narrative and in doing so finds—surprisingly, perhaps—more sympathy for everyone involved.

Almayer’s Folly begs comparisons with La captive (2000), Akerman’s adaptation of Proust. 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 Conrad. But Akerman is working in a different mode here. She seems invigorated by this new-found approach to shooting, which takes the lessons learned from her recent documentary work and applies it, for the first time, to fiction filmmaking. I spoke with her at the Toronto International Film Festival, but this edited transcript also includes extracts from her conversation with Daniel Kasman in Venice.

* * *

I was hoping we could talk a bit about Joseph Conrad.

My film has almost nothing to do with Joseph Conrad.

I was just curious if you remember reading him for the first time.

Yes. Totally.

Was it in school?

No. It was in my bed. I read the book about five years ago by accident because I was at Cape Cod and the book was there. At one point, there is a scene with the father and the daughter, and the father wants to keep the daughter. I was so moved. The same night we Netflix’d Tabu (Murnau, 1931) and—boom!—electricity.

That’s where it started, but from then on it was so different. In the book, the girl barely exists. The movie is much more about a woman, a daughter, and a father. Conrad is interested only in the father.

Like a lot of people in the States, I read Heart of Darkness in school, and I remember being completely enamored with it. When your film was announced I picked up a copy of Almayer’s Folly and read Conrad for the first time in nearly twenty years, and I have to admit that finishing it was a struggle.

Well, it’s his first book.

[laughs] I was annoyed by how . . .

. . . masculine it is.

Very. I was particularly struck by the first appearance of the mother in your film. Just casting that character—giving her a body and a voice—reveals all of the tragedy in her situation that Conrad elides.

She’s driven crazy by the loss of her daughter and only regains some sanity when the girl returns. But, in a way, the mother is the one character who is active, which is never the case in Conrad. He is preoccupied by redemption and guilt, but my film has neither. Redemption is very Catholic; I’m Jewish, and I’m not at all interested in redemption.

It’s interesting that you were so moved by the novel’s description of Almayer’s desire to keep his daughter.

Well, I wonder why? Because it’s not related to my life at all. But there was something there. I started to cry. I don’t know why. Really, it was a shock. It was the combination of that scene and Tabu. When we say the film is from Conrad, we should also say it’s from Murnau. Otherwise, it’s misleading.

Is this the “Paradise Lost” of Tabu?

No, it’s that you want so much for those two kids in Tabu to stay together. My film is, in a way, more cynical. The girl tells him, “My heart is dead.” Well, her heart is dead because she had spent fifteen years in a jail! That line came from my mother, who went through the concentration camps. She said the same thing when she came out.

You know, I went to a similar kind of school. When I was a kid, I was very good. And then, when I was twelve, the director of the school said to my mother, “You have to put your child in a very strict school, and they will make something out of her.” I suffered so much. And I was a total outcast. The school was all girls, and my classmates’ mothers had gone there and their grandmothers had gone there. It was their culture. My culture was from my grandfather—it was Jewish.

So there is a connection between the girl and me, but also between the father and me, because I hate that situation she is thrown into. I have a great deal of empathy for him even though he’s a wimp, as an American would say. Those two characters, in a way, are both me.

When the girl, Nina, finally leaves school you follow her in a long tracking shot down a busy street. She walks beautifully, with her shoulders back and her neck perfectly straight. It’s one of those great long-duration images where you let us really watch her. Then, a few scenes later it pays off when she says bitterly that the school taught her to walk “like a real girl.” Did you feel a similar pressure?

Well, they never succeeded with me. I still walk like Charlie Chaplin. [laughs] But also, you know, she has a kind of pride [or vanity], which I do not have. When I was casting that role, Aurora Marion read a few sentences, and I stopped her [Akerman slams her hand on the table] and said, “tell me, ‘I am not a white.’” Very flatly she said, “I am not a white.” I said, “fine.” 

I was surprised, actually, by how sympathetic the film is toward Almayer. The scene near the beginning when he chases Nina—the scene that first caught your attention in the novel—is quite complex. There’s all this visual density to the sequence, so many cuts, and this nearly stream of conscious monolog from Almayer. It’s surreal. In a single long take, he very gradually relents to letting her go. Regardless of his motivations, it’s a moment of genuine tragedy.

Yes. Maybe she needs to learn French. And maybe she has to become part of that society. It was not easy to shoot this. We worked a lot on that sequence in the editing, because it wasn’t originally supposed to be like that—dreamy—but we realize he’s out of his mind. He’s ranting and we feel Almayer is totally out of place. He says, "you’ll never have my daughter!" Yet when he finds her and holds her, he hands her right over to the Captain. I have great sympathy for him because that guy is always manipulated and he made all the wrong choices. At the end, it drives him crazy. That last shot . . . I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that last shot. You see him losing his mind.

You’ve said that you didn’t block many shots for this film, but was that always going to be the last shot? [Almayer’s Folly closes with a minutes-long, static, medium close-up of Stanislas Merhar.]

Oh, yes. Because it was not easy for Stanislas to do, I didn’t want to interrupt him. I wanted him to have the whole space, mentally and spiritually. Usually I’m more specific. But this time I said to myself, “If I don’t let him be free, it will never be moving.”

I could have watched it for another hour. How did you decide when to cut?

Well, you know, the take was much longer, and there was much more text. In fact, what happened during the shot, when we were slowly pushing his chair into the sun there were birds and he was listening to what was happening around him. And I told him that watching him listen was more interesting. It told me more things than all the words, which were more obvious. So there are only three or four words he says now, something as simple as "sea is black . . . I will forget her," and we understand.

Stanislas Merhar is very boyish, very young looking, and of course by the end of the film he’s made-up to look older, but he still has that…

Adolescence. Yes, he has an adolescent quality, yet at the same time he knows so much about suffering. You know, Almayer loses what is most important to him, so why go on living? Why fight to survive? Then Nina returns and he says, “Okay, I will do it. I will survive. I will do it for her.” But she doesn’t give a shit. He projects his dreams onto someone who doesn’t have the same dreams at all. And that’s no way to love someone.

What is great about Stanislas as a man and as an actor, is that he’s not afraid to show his weakness, which in an American film doesn’t exist. When I showed the script to a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter she said that to have a weak guy as the lead in an American film cannot exist. Look at Matt Damon. He has more and more muscles, but he started by being a more frail creature. When you see him in the Gus Van Sant film, he’s boyish and you feel he has some weakness. A man has to be a he-man, but there are a hundred different kinds of men. Yet for some cinema we must see it as a man and a woman and nothing in between.

When you say Almayer lost the most important thing to him, he would say that thing is his daughter. But isn’t it also the money? The dream of returning triumphantly to Europe? Is that a cynical question?

I think the girl is more important. Of course, the Captain put it in his mind that one day Almayer would go to Europe with money and that he would make his daughter a princess. But when Almayer loses his daughter, the Chinese man says, “This is a dead place now.” Almayer keeps hoping someone will come with money but by then he is already fucked up, already destroyed.

How do you see the Captain? He’s fascinating because he’s a bit unreal, always lurking in the shadows, not quite devilish but with a fantastic quality, and he’s always showing up in formal wear.

That’s why I put him in a smoking jacket—to show he was in fact probably playing cards, going to the casino, and was not at all like a real captain, like in the book, where he was admired as a fighter. I wanted someone else, someone who was not a captain, someone different yet had so much influence on Almayer, this poor guy, and destroys his life. In the book we hear that he’s dead but there’s no scene of him dying.

You described Almayer’s home as a “dead place,” which is reflected in the set design. This a modern-day adaptation of a late-19th century novel—kind of. It feels like a place out of time.

Well, maybe. We shot the city, Phnom Penh, as it is today. And to build Almayer’s house, we took two old houses and put them together. We didn’t shoot the village, but if you had seen it, it would look just like that house. So it is now.

What is very, very strange is that you can’t imagine that two million people died there. Okay, again, as Jew, I was born in 1950, and my mother came back from the camps in 1945. She was destroyed by it. But those people [in Cambodia]—maybe it is because they’re Buddhist, I don’t know—but they were smiling. They seemed to be happy, full of energy. It’s hard to know they’re age, so I kept thinking, “One generation is missing, but I can’t see it.”

Is that historical resonance with the Holocaust one reason why you shot in Cambodia?

No, first we tried to go to Malaysia, which is where the book is set, but I didn’t feel it. Then we were invited to Cambodia and I found the place I had imagined. I love Phnom Penh. The city does not appear in the book, but when I visited Phnom Penh I knew I had to put it in the film.

That’s interesting, because the book hews so closely to Almayer’s perspective. By expanding the film’s world to include the city, you’re again shifting the emphasis to Nina’s story. Which brings us to the opening scene, when Nina’s lover, Daïn, is murdered and Nina sings.

Yes! And in a kind of bordello, which is incredible. You discover later in the film that her teachers didn’t let her sing, and you also learn that she has a talent. To sing the “Ave Verum Corpus” of Mozart, it’s great. It’s also a displacement, everything’s about displacement. That girl will find her way. 

How did you direct that shot?

Nina had to dance like she was in a trance, like she was hallucinating and didn’t realize that something had happened because she’s so much into her thing. When the Chinese guy says, "he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead," there’s a kind of a shock. I said, “Approach the camera, stop here, and start to sing, but start to sing with more and more feeling.”

At what point in your process do you decide a scene or sequence is going to be a long take? For example, that marvelous scene of Nina smoking under the tree. The camera dollies back and she talks to Daïn for five unbroken minutes…

It comes from the set and is totally improvised. For the scene you mention, I was thinking of breaking it up, showing some of him and some of her, but then I wondered if that was totally necessary. It would have cut the relationship. I didn’t prepare anything; usually I prepare a lot but with this film I didn’t even know what I was going to shoot the next day. After two or three days I felt like I had to make the film in a kind of freedom that I’ve never had, more the way I do my documentaries. I was writing to a friend, "Oh my God, I’m taking a big risk, but if it works it will be great." It was very risky.

When you shoot a film like Là-bas yourself on digital, you can have a lot of freedom but now you’re shooting on 35mm in a jungle…

I had such a good crew. The guy doing the image and the guy who did the sound were from my documentaries. They were all so into it. For example, while we were rehearsing that tracking shot of Almayer in front of the river, we set up the focus so that he’d stop here and there. Then when we shot, Stanlislas did something totally different. He never stopped at the same moment, so you know the guy doing the tracking shot and the focus-puller were so much with him, and it was such a challenge for everybody. It was so exciting. Each shot was an adventure.

The film certainly feels that way. Some sequences have a profound sense of depth—the shots in the room with the river behind the house and the curtains blowing—and then you have sequences with no depth, shot in the densest foliage, no space, and everything’s in your face. This visual flow of the film seems very organic and natural.

That’s what I tried to do. I said it was risky but I had fun doing it. To work like this was such pleasure. To have that challenge with almost every shot made you so alive. When you do it conventionally, you know what you’re doing and you try to do it the best you can. There are always small challenges—the film has to be well shot—but it’s not the same as what we did here.

You made your reputation with very structured . . .

. . . No, I wanted to make something much more fluid.

But it’s fun to see your older, more formally controlled style injected into this film, like the last, long shot of Almayer.

It’s a mixture. This new style liberated me from what I had been doing. I’m tired of doing the same thing, and I think the film is stronger because of that. There’s more power in the images.