One of the year's most hypnotic and fascinating films, Chantal Akerman's newest is a provocative adaptation of Conrad's novel of the same name, an "exotic" tour through the wet jungles of Southeast Asia and a superbly crafted old-school melodrama complete with a ravishing half-blood temptress (Belgian-Greek-Rwandan beauty Aurora Marion) and a big dose of colonialist comeuppance. Conrad's 1895 story is set in 19th-century Borneo, but Akerman has nudged it to the '50s Cambodia, where the bitter titular Frenchman (Stanislas Merhar) nevertheless refers to his recalcitrant native wife as "the Malaysian." (The dialogue is French and Khmer.) Stuck in the jungle while waiting out a failed gold mine, Almayer must give up his half-caste daughter for a convent education. But wait: We've already seen Nina (Marion) grown up in the film's entrancing opening, as a Khmer dandy lip-syncs to Dean Martin's "Sway," gets knifed mid song, and spurs a dreamily dancing Nina to saunter up to the camera for a mega close-up and croon Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus" in Latin. Time hopscotches, but Nina's sequestered absence and then return to the forest, fierce and hateful and full-bodied, is the story's main crucible, a sultry and uncontrollable riposte to self-pitying Euro privilege in the colonies. Typically for Akerman, it's an intensely rhythmic, brooding, and contemplative movie, but the iconography of maddened white men lost in the Torrid Zone wilderness never gets old.
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