It begins with a murder: A sparkle-suited pimp lip-synching to a Dean Martin ditty is stabbed in a Cambodian nightclub. Everyone scatters. Then a luminous young woman steps forward, looks directly into the camera and sings a haunting solo rendition of a Mozart choral. This preamble is surely a contender for scene of the year—and the rest of Chantal Akerman’s loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel about a merchant sailor (Stanislas Merhar) and his half-caste daughter (Aurora Marion) more than lives up to its defiantly strange opening.
Imagine the Belgian writer-director’s latest as the inverse of her celebrated study of a French housewife on the edge, Jeanne Dielman (1975), working backward from, and oftentimes around, the narrative’s confrontational denouement. Akerman’s formal control is, as always, astounding: Long takes abound, and the sound design, with its symphonic mix of chirping creatures, ambient buzzing and otherworldly music cues, is so immersive that you can almost feel the oppressive humidity of the occidental setting. But it is the richly evocative performances of Marion (aggressive yet enticing) and Merhar (wearing world-weariness like an aged suit) that cut deepest. They’re the perfect vehicles for Akerman to explore the heart-of-darkness existentialism so integral to Conrad, and you understand why—as in the two lengthy close-ups that bookend her uniquely enthralling feature—she lingers on both actors every chance she gets.
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