Director Chantal Akerman was back on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She was standing in front of her audience at Anthology Film Archives, a film society so hip that there was a line of people around the block, still waiting to get into the screening of her newest movie, “La Folie Almayer,” a very loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, “Almayer’s Folly.” Akerman, the Belgian-born director of such films as “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” “Night and Day” and the Marcel Proust adaptation “The Captive,” doesn’t have an American theatrical distributor for “La Folie Almayer,” and she’s never been part of the cinema mainstream, but she’s a rock star at Anthology, where she’s been coming to watch films and to screen her own since she arrived in the United States in the early 1970s. Akerman, who now lives in Harlem and is on the faculty of the City College of New York, was a self-effacing presence in red pants and an untucked white blouse, a woman whose ebullient charm belies the tightly controlled and often uncompromisingly dour mood of some of her better-known films.
“I’m totally out of control. I’m totally nuts,” Akerman said. “My apartment is a mess, I’m a mess and I’m out of control. But when I make a movie, it’s totally something else.”
As she stood before the screen at Anthology to introduce her film, Akerman advised her audience not to spend too much time interpreting her movie. “You should just let go,” she said
Perhaps Akerman’s advice would be easier to follow if one were watching a film made by another director: Her recognizably languid visual style, however, comprises extremely long takes that allow the viewer more than enough time for contemplation, interpretation and most probably misinterpretation.
Akerman established her reputation with “Jeanne Dielman,” a classic, though still quite challenging, 1975 film that is now seen as a landmark of contemporary cinema. It clocks in at more than three hours, even though the majority of its screen time is taken up by the quotidian, mind-numbing chores of the titular Belgian housewife before she finally bursts into violence.
The new film, much of which was filmed in Cambodia rather than the Malaysia of Conrad’s novel, has more of a traditional plot than is often the case for Akerman’s work, and it features more exterior shots than one has come to expect from her. She says that she approached this film more instinctively than some of her others. But the silences, the sense of directorial control and the overwhelmingly claustrophobic sensation remain. And so do those slow, hypnotic tracking shots, here partly underscored by strains of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”
In those moments, it’s hard for the viewer to avoid drawing parallels between the tragic exile story of Akerman’s heroine — Nina, a mixed-race girl sent away by her father to a boarding school — and the story of the director’s own family: Akerman is a child of Polish Holocaust survivors; she was born in Brussels and partly educated in Jewish schools. Her father died in 1995, and her mother, who she says understands her work better than anybody, is still living in Belgium.
“My mother was in Auschwitz, and she never wanted to talk about the concentration camps,” Akerman told me during a conversation after the film. “I asked many times, and she would say, ‘I can’t talk about that.’ My father was not in the camps; he was hiding with his father and mother, and his sister went in Catholic convents. But on my mother’s side, many, many, many people died.”