There are 52 known film versions of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, ranging from DeMille’s 1915 patchwork debacle to Preminger’s workmanlike all-black musical Carmen Jones in 1954 to Godard’s dejection ode (and Karina exorcism?) Prénom: Carmen in 1984. Prosper Mérimée’s slippery man-eater performs her dance of the seven veils at the intersection of l’amour and la mort, forever poised for escape, and any latter-day incarnation must also elude legions of cinematic predecessors (not to mention two decades of Olympic figure skaters). Senegalese director Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s Karmen Geï heralds two new inroads in Carmen studies: The fickle temptress swings both ways, and this rendition is touted as the first movie musical produced in sub-Saharan Africa—no production numbers per se, but plenty of song and dance and declaiming on the shores of Dakar.
The film assumes the audience’s familiarity with the story line and then pays only casual attention to it. Karmen (Djeïnaba Diop Gaï) makes her entrance via Larry Clarkian mise-en-scène: Squatting at center stage in what appears to be a prison-yard theater-in-the-round, glistening thighs poised at an impressively obtuse angle, she enacts a modified lap dance for the intrigued warden, Angelique (Stéphanie Biddle). Cut to the jailhouse interior, a boisterous sorority-cum-harem crammed full of sassy matrons, where Karmen enjoys after-hours privileges in the headmistress’s well-appointed, candlelit bedchamber. A quick sex scene affords Ramaka’s camera the opportunity to all but lick the heroine’s backside, but as soon as Angelique drops into depthless postcoital slumber, Karmen vanishes through the beaded curtain. As politically minded as she is sexually enterprising, she immediately sets about derailing a wedding ceremony attended by military big shots. A resultant dance-off and catfight lands hapless Lamine (Magaye Niang) in stir; once Karmen busts him out, the smitten colonel states the obvious: “Now you’ve definitively thrown me into the shit.”
Hampered somewhat by Ramaka’s erratic pacing, the film develops as a series of shapeless, albeit energetic, set pieces, with nods to Ousmane Sembène’s pioneering Black Girl once Karmen hears death knocking at her door. (Nikos Meletopoulos’s production design, a sumptuous color-field, is counterpoint to Bertrand Chatry’s mottled, dusky cinematography—clouds seem to loom even in the bluest and brightest of Dakar’s skies.) An adoring Greek chorus and team of sabar drummers await Karmen wherever she roams, be it church or tavern hall, and understandably so—lead actress Gaï, she of the impossibly long limbs and sweetly conspiratorial smile, is a towering siren, in command of the movie even when Ramaka contrives for her to straddle a bubble bath as if it were a birthing pool. Her Karmen is surprisingly tender and sympathetic, which is to say, a new face in an old crowd—less attention-deficient opportunist than incongruously independent woman, finally undone by her own aphrodisiac magnetism.
Before its run at Film Forum, Karmen Geï will be one of several Senegalese productions to screen (April 5 and 8) at the New York African Film Festival, where windows on Sembène’s homeland (Mansour Sora Wade’s fishing-village fable, The Price of Forgiveness; Moussa Sene Absa’s domestic cauldron, And So Angels Die) and evidence of his far-ranging influence are in ample supply. Mahama Johnson Traoré’s Njangaan exposes the fundamentalist Muslim clergy’s exploitation of illiterate, impoverished children in rural Senegal, while first-time director Alain Gomis grapples mightily with the legacy of French colonialism in L’Afrance, perhaps the best film in the series (and Silver Leopard prizewinner at Berlin).
Elliptical and offhandedly comic, L’Afrance‘s early scenes bear a passing resemblance to Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument. El Hadj (Djolof Mbengue), a 26-year-old Senegalese student in Paris on the verge of completing his dissertation, talks nonstop about the importance of loyalty to one’s native country (“If the inhabitants have to choose exile to survive and support the people back home, it’s all over”), while deferring his own return to Senegal, where his fiancée awaits. A routine visit to the immigration office results in a sudden, brutal rupture of the breezy veneer—an expired visa, late by just a few days, lands El Hadj in detention. Torn up by anger and wrenching ambivalence, El Hadj realizes his sojourn to France has indelibly blurred the difference between home and away; the remainder of his journey is an existential odyssey as much as a political crucible. Gomis’s film is a marvel of terse concentration, aided by Mbengue’s remarkably internalized, clenched-fist performance.
The Walter Reade program also journeys to South Africa, Chad (Issa Serge Coelo’s artless but compelling Daresalam, set during the civil-war-torn 1970s, chronicles the birth of a rebel consciousness), and Rwanda, where director Nick Hughes revisits the 1994 genocide in 100 Days, shot at the church site of a massacre. Among the shorts and featurettes, a standout is Fanta Regina Nacro’s Bintou (a favorite on the international circuit), which finds a put-upon mom in Burkina Faso starting her own business against her domineering husband’s wishes. A close cousin to Sembène’s most recent effort, Faat-Kiné, Bintou is propelled by richly detailed characterizations, brisk verité rhythms, and most heartening of all, a fiercely controlled feminist energy.