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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Almayer’s Folly and That Summer

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Almayer’s Folly</em> and <em>That Summer</em>

Almayer’s Folly: In what is easily the most eye-grabbing introductory sequence so far in the festival, an extended tracking shot follows a man into a nightclub where a lounge lizard mimes a Dean Martin chanson before a row of swaying, sequin-studded dancers; a knifing ensues, and the one girl left onstage afterward approaches the camera for a close-up and launches into a grave aria in Latin. Fortunately, Chantal Akerman’s very loose modernization of Joseph Conrad’s first novel lives up to the humid mystery of its opening with a stylistic rigor that finds the Belgian filmmaker—directing her first non-documentary feature in seven years—in top insinuating form. As she charts the dilemmas and gestures of an European trader Almayer (Stanislas Mehar) and his “mixed-blood” daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion), Akerman’s decision to take Conrad’s 19th-century, Malaysia-set story to modern-day Cambodia without acknowledging the changes comes to strike less as an eccentric gesture than as a purposeful extension of the narrative’s inquiries into cultural identity and colonial uprooting. Still, the film works most evocatively not as a visualization of a literary source, but as a companion piece to Akerman’s 2000 masterpiece La Captive, another tale of obsessive drives hitting like tropical maladies. A work of engulfing jungles and rivers, vehement and incantatory speeches, and piercing female gazes in front of and behind the camera.

That Summer: As befits a story in which painting and filmmaking figure prominently, Philippe Garrel’s contemplative look at a pair of parallel relationships kicks off with a couple of striking cinematic sketches, including a heart-stopping reclining nude of Monica Bellucci and a still life of a smoldering car crash. The two contrasting couples are a moody French artiste (Louis Garrel) and his Italian actress wife (Bellucci), and Garrel’s friend (Jerome Robart) and his girlfriend (Céline Sallette), all brought together for a Roman summer near Cinecittà. Garrel choreographs this quadrille with a melancholy eye for the languid moments between emotional flares, with characters lounging in patio chairs, hitting the discotheque, and murmuring about “bourgeois” this and “revolution” that over glasses of wine. It sounds like a virtual parody of a listless Gallic romance, but Garrel’s unofficial anagram of Godard’s Contempt lingers both as a tangle of stagnant and fluid yearning and as an intriguing meta-subversion of movie romance, with established stars (Louis Garrel’s hipster listlessness is by now as much of a familiar art-house staple as Bellucci’s Mediterranean sex bomb) openly outclassed by bit players (Robart and Sallette, who had previously had tiny roles in Regular Lovers, also play aspiring actors here). Though shot in swanky color, the film retains the alternately trying and invigorating starkness of the director’s recent, black-and-white efforts.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8—18.