It boded so well. The credits play over a serene beam of moonlight on the water, while an excerpt of Tristan and Isolde tinkles gently; then we’re thrown into a noisy neon Malayan karaoke club/shack, where an unexpected, very public murder is followed by an even more unexpected, somnambulant Ave Maria. But Chantal Akerman, taking Joseph Conrad’s first novel, goes nowhere near such stylish flamboyance again and delivers much that is expected, and much that is unexpectedly unsuccessful.
We were warned by the programmer’s introduction not to expect much plot, but part of the film’s problem is that there is too much, and that detail, content and frequently dialogue are all half-baked; indeed, I found myself wishing for longer, slower, emptier takes (my prayers were eventually answered). The film is at its best when contemplating the murky greens and blues of the moonlit forest, and watery glades, and achieves a couple of moments of transcendence: a great deal is shot in suggestive darkness and the storm rains that pockmark the murky green water turn it in close-up to the writhing skin of an octopus. It is a wild environment of the deep unknown in which to imprison the protagonists; the sway of Tabu that Akerman has confessed is clear in both the photography and the story that involves, latterly, two “native” lovers whose union cannot be.
What presumably drew Akerman to the material was the position of the girl, Nina, part Malay and part white, daughter of French trader Almayer, whose folly, in part, is allowing her to be whisked off to boarding school at the start by Captain Lingard. Lingard failed in his attempts to Europeanize Nina’s mother – to make her “one of us” – so married her off to Almayer with the promise of gold mines which never materialize, and he wants to try again with Nina.
Akerman gives Nina a couple of long, meandering explanations of how hard it has been for her as a half-caste, and once she’s grown up, and once plot motor Lingard is out of the picture, the film’s rhythm slows to a seductive languor. But it’s not enough. For all of Akerman’s thrall to Tabu, there’s not a jot of ethnography here which, in the film’s explicit focus on colonialism and Lingard’s efforts to “turn” the native women, is nigh on inexplicable: the Malays are presented to us just as they appear to Almayer, with no meaningful life or culture of their own. He dismisses their (lovely) singing as a racket (and tunelessly hums Chopin to make his point), and is swiftly revealed to be the standard white man in the jungle, sweating, inert and sickly, shouting in desperation from the unhealthy darkness of his hut, or standing Aguirre-like on the canoe that will certainly not take him to the gold.
To see the locals through his eyes only is justifiable in that Almayer is the center of the film, but even the dedicated playing of Stanislas Merhar cannot make a three-dimensional character of him. One does not expect as much, necessarily, from Akerman, but it makes the film’s adoption of his viewpoint notably uncomfortable, and completely undermines the notorious final shot: Almayer has disowned Nina (she’s run off with her outlaw lover) and says that tomorrow he will forget her. He sits in close-up for a long, long time, remembering. His Malay factotum props up the doorway, out of focus, in the background. It’s a superb, moving finale in theory. Merhar does a great job, wordlessly holding down the shot for its punishing duration, but his character is beyond our interest, or even favour, for the stupid, hackneyed attitudes he has shown, and since he gave Nina away at the age of five or so, he’s not got a great deal to remember in any case. The best he can come up with, eventually, is that he told her not to walk barefoot in the grass for fear of snakes, which would be a decent enough metaphor for the colonialist attempts to Europeanize the foreigner for their own good, were it backed up by any piquancy of conflict, involving a character of any complexity or sympathy at all, however repressed. So it’s not.