KARMEN GEI

NR
Reviews

Women etched into the memory of film buffs aren't nice girls. They're more like Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Carmen Jones, Lolita, Lulu in Something Wild, and Alex in Fatal Attraction. Terrifying and always irresistible, they attract men like insects to a spider's web. Now there's Karmen Gei (Djeinaba Diop Gai). Not your conventional femme fatale, Karmen is a Sengelese goddess, the true realization of Mrime's character and Bizet's gypsy heroine. Her power is primitive, numinous, destructive. When Karmen dances, the earth's magma seems to rise in her loins.

This Karmen exercises her usual power over men, but in her 21st-century incarnation, she also threatens their patriarchal structures. During an electrifying public dance performance, Karmen accuses a government official of evil--to the delight of the crowd--and later seduces Colonel Lamine (Magaye Niang), head of the police, ultimately making him a co-conspirator in an illegal scheme. Even Karmen's jailer falls prey to her wiles. The lovely Angelique (Stphanie Biddle) allows Karmen to escape a woman's prison--after Karmen seduces her. By imagining the "Carmen" character as possessing the sort of power which destroys social and political structures, director Joseph Gai Ramaka envisions Karmen as a Great Mother figure. To ensure her divinity, he declares her the granddaughter of Kumba Kastle, goddess of the sea.

Ramaka's storyline is similar to Bizet's opera in the sense that Karmen Gei is a tragedy about a woman whose sexual freedom proves too threatening to her lovers. However, the filmmaker doesn't use Bizet's score. Instead, he creates a wonderful blend of jazz, rhythmic African percussion, pop music and rap. There's dialogue rather than opera, so that Karmen Gei is actually an African musical. Ramaka's sets and native costumes combine to create a blazing palette against which Gai, Amazonian in stature, struts, dances and sings. The writer-director wastes no opportunity to exploit the dramatic African landscape--location shooting took place in Dakar--but Africa isn't simply a backdrop for Karmen. It represents her genesis. She and Africa are inseparable.

Karmen Gei opens in a woman's prison where Karmen is incarcerated. We first see her accompanied by her chorus of sensuous, buxom African women, fellow inmates. Their song is a scandalous tribute to women's sexual freedom, an introduction to Karmen's dance. The dance is for Angelique. If the film were to end there, the moment after Karmen's dance, it would still be extraordinary because Karmen's dancing isn't like anything you've seen on the screen before. It's wanton, orgiastic, libidinous, and Ramaka celebrates every licentious move. A violent initiation rite for the audience, as much as it is for Angelique, the dance guarantees Karmen's enthronement among the cinema's memorable women.

Ramaka retains some of Bizet's characters--Don Jos, the jealous corporal, becomes Colonel Lamine, and Escamillo, the toreador, is Massigui (El Hadji Ndiaye), a singer--but Angelique, Karmen's true love, is purely his creation. Unfortunately, she virtually disappears after her one evening of lovemaking with Karmen. At the very core of Ramaka's interpretation of the "Carmen" story is Angelique's yearning for Karmen, and Karmen's grief over the impossibility of their union. If Angelique and Karmen were to join forces, patriarchy would fall. An entirely new social order would take its place. Obviously, Africa is not ready for that, for what is in essence a full expression of feminine sexuality, nor is the rest of the world. If it were, Karmen Gei would not be a tragedy.

--Maria Garcia