MOVIE REVIEW | 'KARMEN GEI'
Driving Men, and Women, Crazy
By ELVIS MITCHELL / http://www.nytimes.com
My movie that begins with a dance number that takes place in a prison yard is out to bedevil its audience by any means necessary. Beguiling and peppery, the berserkly picaresque "Karmen Gei" — which starts a run today at the Film Forum in Manhattan — is enormously likable, partly because it is aware of its own grasp of the absurd.
Unfortunately, it is also sadly inconsistent ; it definitely flags whenever its star is not before the camera. Karmen (Djeinaba Diop Gai) whips the folds of her long, dark skirts to expose her long, dark legs.
She's like a statue carved of chocolate with an extremely high cocoa content, and her muscular calves look like a confection to Angélique (Stéphanie Biddle), the prison warden. Karmen soon beds the warden, who keeps a candlestick-packed boudoir office that wouldn't be out of place in an R. Kelly video, and escapes into the night, leaving another in her trail of heartbreaks.
And that's just in the first 10 minutes of this enticingly loony restaging of the Bizet opera. Set in Senegal and directed by Joseph Gai Ramaka, this new version lacks cohesion, but generates so many B.T.U.'s — Karmen's gorgeous skin is perpetually beaded with photogenic sweat — that you'll find yourself distracted from thinking about the doom-oriented denouement, at least temporarily. (The stop and start mechanism is something the other film versions of "Carmen" have never quite solved either, with the possible exception of Godard's "Prenom: Carmen," which simply uses the story as a taking off point.)
The opening piece is the only conventional production number in the whole film, and it's used to warn us that we're about to see a picture scaled to compete with the phalanx of movie adaptations of Bizet's story. Rather than going from one dance number to the next, Mr. Ramaka keeps music bubbling through the text; he has made that rare film version of an opera where the music becomes an organic part of the way the characters lead their lives, instead of having them break meaninglessly into song. (The wonderful soundtrack — with a score by the avant-jazz saxophonist David Murray and contributions from numerous African performers — has a come-hither fire, too.) Music becomes a form of expression for the cast members, especially the women; Karmen sings and chants her desires, and the world-beat pulse is a kind of trigger to her unconscious, which is not too deep below the surface.
Karmen, as they say in first-semester psychology courses, lacks any self-governors. Her powers are overwhelmingly potent on the love-starved sap army officer Lamine (Magaye Niang), who's so taken with her that he loses his commission, the love of the police chief's daughter and, it seems, several nights' sleep; by the end of the film, he's worn down by his obsession. His eyes are yellow and a scruffy gray stubble lines his jawbone.
Despite the on-the-run splendor of Bertrand Chatry's cinematography and Nikos Meletopoulos's production design, the picture often ruts through deep potholes of bad, obvious dialogue. And Mr. Niang isn't quite up to the goddessy charisma of Ms. Gai, though it's hard to say if this lack comes from the actor or the chumpish constraints of his role; even Harry Belafonte couldn't do much more than smooth his shirt over his impossibly flat dogface's stomach in 1954's "Carmen Jones." And she's so seductive, though hardly a willowy vixen; she's more like the Rock, and does just as much damage.
Finally, it turns out that Karmen has a heart and pines for one of her victims. She also knows she has earned whatever fate befalls her because of her actions, but she doesn't apologize or slow down. Reaching New York a couple of years after its due date — the climax has a swarm of partygoers awaiting the first tick of the year 2000 — "Karmen Gei" is still welcome.