A retelling of the celebrated "Carmen" myth set in contemporary Senegal to African music and dance.
Director Joseph Gai Ramaka writes: "Carmen is a myth but what does Carmen represent today? Where do Carmen's love and freedom stand at the onset of the 21st Century? Therein lies my film's intent, a black Carmen, plunged in the magical and chaotic urbanity of an African city." Prosper Merimee's novella, adapted in Bizet's celebrated opera, has already received 52 film interpretations, most notably the all black Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge, and, more recently, Carlos Saura's flamenco Carmen and Jean-Luc Godard's B-movie version Pre Nom Carmen. Yet Karmen Gei is the first African Carmen and, arguably, the first African filmed "musical." Accordingly, Gai Ramaka has completely replaced Bizet's score and the usual staging with indigenous Senegalese music and choreography: Doudou N'Diaye Rose's sabar drummers, Julien Jouga's choir, El Hadj Ndiaye's songs and Yande Coudou Sene's prophetic voice. Saxophonist David Murray's contemporary jazz score runs like a thread of unfulfilled desire through the film. Karmen Gei may convince viewers that this African ambience is what the Carmen legend, perhaps leading back through Andalusia to its African roots, has been waiting for all these years.
Like every Carmen, Karmen Gei is about the conflict between infinite desire for freedom and the laws, conventions, languages, the human limitations which constrain that desire. Since this is an African Carmen, freedom necessarily has a political dimension. The opening scene is set in a women's prison on Goree Island, site of the notorious slave castle. Karmen and the women in the prison use dance and music as a weapon of resistance against dehumanizing regimentation as has so often been the case throughout the African Diaspora. Karmen's outrageously provocative performance seduces Angelique, the warden, the symbol of authority, inverting the power relationships within the prison. Karmen literally transforms prison life into a musical production number celebrating the triumph of her sexuality and that of the other women. Karmen is called, "She who wreaks havoc," signifying that she is both a liberator and a destroyer of every order.
Karmen challenges not just the formal legal system but the conventional society it supports. In the second major scene, she disrupts the wedding of a policeman, Corporal Lamine, leaving the marriage unconsummated and making a mockery of the institution. In specific, she interrupts the traditional praise singer to denounce the assembled established social order he is flattering: "I say you are evil.You have swallowed up the country." Karmen is irresistible; inn one night Lamine becomes a prisoner and then, with Karmen's help, a fugitive and member of her smugglers ring. He says he has "lost my shadow," his conventional identity as policeman and husband; his personal boundaries have collapsed in front of Karmen's promise of infinite freedom.
Yet Karmen's libido cannot be contained within the limits of a conventional heterosexuality. In one of Gai Ramaka's boldest strokes, he makes Karmen bisexual. Her great love turns out to be Angelique, the prison warden. But it is a "sad love" because Angelique realizes she cannot hold onto Karmen because what makes her so free also makes her unattainable. In fact, unlike the possessive Lamine, Angelique allows Karmen to leave prison thus losing her. In the end, Angelique commits suicide by walking into a moonlit sea, something as boundless, inviting and ultimately enveloping as Karmen herself. The spirit of the sea, Kumba Kastle, runs through the film like a blues riff; the characters perch on craggy islets of identity, their lives forever in danger of being swallowed up in the formless immensity of the ocean.
Karmen's desire may be infinite but her life is finite. Sometimes when she dances it is almost as if she were defying her own body's gravity and shape. During a card game, she has a premonition of her death, the vision of an over-exposed world in white face. The two most important men in her life, the singer, Massigi, and the lighthouse keeper, Samba, can not console her for the loss of Angelique. After a mysterious encounter with his wife, Karmen realizes she can never commit herself to Lamine and commands him to return to his marriage and ordinary life. But Lamine's jealousy overwhelms him; if he cannot possess Karmen's freedom he will destroy it. He stalks Karmen; she does not resist her fate; but taunts him, speaking in aphorisms, as befits a force of nature: "Love is a rebellious bird, no one can tame. Love is a vagabond child who knows no laws." In the end, perhaps, it is not Lamine but life itself that is too small for Karmen.
The film ends as it began with a performance - but this time Karmen is absent. Earlier in the film we encountered a blind woman who came down to the beach each day to sing to the sea; now she sings of Karmen's death before a concert audience, an audience of which the film viewer is in fact a part. Karmen is being murdered in the flies over the stage while we listen to her life re-enacted below. Perhaps Karmen was too expansive to remain among us in any form but art, ultimately returning to where she has always existed - legend and imagination.
"The effect is perhaps most readily comparable to Black Orpheus...Karmen Gei transcends tourist exoticism thanks to star GaI's formidable presence - here is the rare Carmen to possess rather than 'act" a sexual magnetism that's more femme vivre than fatale." - Variety "Here is one of most beautiful modern presentations of the Carmen myth, reconstructed with a new setting, contemporary Senegal. An enchanting set, African music and dance, colorful scenes and costumes are woven together in a mesmerizing rhythm and cinematography." - Le Figaro "Weaves a spell. The music transforms the story into something free and graceful." - Liberation "One cannot say that one has a real knowledge of world cinema today without having experienced the exciting films coming out of Africa. African filmmakers are among the most artistically talented and technically astute in the world" - Linda Blackaby, Director of Programming, San Francisco International Film Festival "African Cinema is known for its stylish cinematography, and here the underworld of Dakar and its kindly denizens are captured beautifully win dusky jewel tones rubbed with grit." - France Reade, SF Weekly
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