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Doesn't quite live up to it's promise, but Akerman is always worth seeing
Akerman's first narrative feature since 2004 has a lot of strengths, but a few frustrating flaws too. Loosely adapted from a Joseph Conrad novel, the film has an amazing opening sequence; surreal, beautiful, disturbing, dramatic and not quite like anything else I've seen from Akerman (whose work I greatly admire). There's sort of a David Lynch feel, a sense that after this opening, anything is possible, and we should not expect the film to play by the usual rules of realism or naturalism.
But the rest of the film turns out to be much more in Ms. Akerman's usual style, with a sort of heightened minimalist realism, largely formed by long takes of beautifully framed shots simply watching, and not overtly commenting on the characters. There's nothing wrong with that style, and it's produced some great films (Jeanne Dielmann, La Captive), along with some very good ones. But the promise of something new was not only exciting, but might have worked better for this particular story.
It seems to me like there is simply too much plot for Akerman's slow, deliberate style. Her usual approach works best when nothing much seems to be happening, allowing us time to peer beneath the surface of tightly controlled behavior, though her composition and her actors' faces. Here, with a lot of narrative twists and turns to cover, the style felt more opaque, and its observations about the folly and insanity of white imperialists traveling into the world with the hope of re-making the native people (in this case the protagonist's daughter) into good little white people - alongside the madness of thinking they control the power of the jungle itself -- a bit too easy. We know these ideas and recognize them quickly (Of course, in a sad development, modern multi-nationals have accomplished it much more successfully than Conrad would ever have imagined) .
But given Akerman's style in this case, much goes missing. We have to take it for granted that the indigenous culture is better, since we see literally nothing of it. We have to accept that Almayer is obsessed with his daughter, since he allows her to be taken off to a school to essentially 'turn her white' early on, and he doesn't see her for years, making his obsession bizarrely shallow (I do think this is intentional on Akerman's part, but if so it's a fascinating idea I wish the film explored more deeply Almayer is more obsessed with the idea of his half-white daughter made 'whole', than by any real connection to the actual girl. As with the land, controlling the universe is more important than experiencing it.).
Lastly, the soul killing effect on the girl of going through the white school feels overplayed in the performance in a way that's distancing. Nina has become a virtual zombie, emotionally so dead that its hard to feel for her or care about her. Yet we've seen little of what she's gone through, just a brief scene of off-screen sounds of her being berated by a presumably white teacher. The opening has told us that she ultimately finds transcendence, of perhaps a very curdled sort, but it doesn't make the trip there that much more powerful, since our attention is on Almayer so much of the time, relegating Nina the person, not the idea, to the periphery.
Now, all those complaints made, this is a stunning looking film, with some very powerful images, ideas, and moments. It's far more interesting than the vast majority of mainstream films we get to see here in the U.S. I just feel like Akerman was on the verge of another masterpiece, but somehow didn't quite get there. Sill this is very worth seeing, and as her films have a habit of doing, it has bounced around in my head for days afterwords.
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