Mother Africa's New Breed
Karmen Gei; "New York African Film Festival"
by Jessica Winter
April 3 - 9, 2002
Written and directed by Joseph Gaï Ramaka
New York African Film Festival
April 5 through 11
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.