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Joseph Gaï Ramaka's Karmen Geï is an exuberant African rendition of the classic Bizet opera Carmen, set in Senegal and filled with dark, sweaty writhing in the vein of a Matrix Zion war ritual. From the sensual gyrations of its first scene, it brings a perpetual heat to the screen that's difficult to look away from. That being said, Karmen Geï never solidifies into a complete film and must make do with merely being a bold, beautiful, if frustratingly meandering adaptation.
Karmen (Djeïnaba Diop Gaï) is a dark, lanky, statuesque beauty sultry-dancing through nearly every scene of this film, and even when she's not dancing, you can see the buoyant boogie in her eyes—the gyrations, the bright swaying cloth at her thighs almost revealing the meaning of life. She's filled to brimming with raw sexuality, and because of her, the movie practically sweats. Even in prison, Karmen is tantalizing, particularly to the bemused warden, Angélique (Stéphanie Biddle), who keeps her behind bars. When Karmen uses her considerable rhythmic charms to seduce the warden, she soon finds herself fleeing into the Dakar underworld. Before you can catch your breath, Karmen is gyrating at the wedding of a local police corporal, Lamine (Magaye Niang), denouncing the political machinations of the guests, brawling with the bride, and bedding the groom. Through it all, Karmen charms like a snake, beguiling and dangerous.
Karmen Geï is filled with intoxicating African drumbeats that seem to step right into the rhythm of your heart. Kudos to jazzman David Murray and his collaborators on a film that's overflowing with music, whether it's streaming in the background or belting from Karmen's throat. The ever-present pulsing rhythm becomes a character unto itself—and, next to Karmen herself, is by far the most interesting character of the film. The great disappointment of Karmen Geï is that no one in the sphere of the titular character is even remotely as interesting as she is. The people who fall under her sway lack any resonance, and so the film is nearly devoid of meaningful human interaction—even between Karmen and her fervent admirer, Lamine, who gradually wilts beneath the heat of Karmen's erotic charge.
Indeed, the bulk of the film seems to similarly wilt under that heat, but what heat it is! As a tale of classic revolutionary passion set in darkest Africa, Karmen Geï comes across as rather flat in the arena of sheer storytelling. But as an arousing spectacle of throaty desire, the film shines with the benefit of its lead performance and the stirring beat of its other-cultural harmonies.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Kino presents Karmen Geï in a disappointingly non-anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This is a colorful, rich-looking film that really would have benefited from enhancement. That being said, detail is pretty good for a non-anamorphic effort, offering a fair degree of depth and sharpness. Colors are good but not outstanding, lacking a certain vividness and richness that was obviously intended.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track, in French and Wolof, is nothing to get worked up about, but it provides an adequate stereo presentation that's obviously front-heavy. It's a pretty center-focused affair, and dialog/singing sound just on the edge of brittle. Still, voices remain clear, even though they lack true resonance.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The DVD contains one supplement that's worthy of your perusal, and that's a 27-minute Interview with Joanna Grabski, Professor of African Visual Culture at Denison University. Interspersed with footage from the film, this mostly talking-head chat is actually an enlightening extra, adding a great deal to your understanding of the culture from which this film springs. Grabski offers an eloquent breakdown of the cultural themes and symbols at work in Karmen Geï.
You also get a brief Still Gallery.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Definitely worth a look for the magnetic performance of Djeïnaba Diop Gaï, Karmen Geï is otherwise a fairly flat film that frustrates despite stellar moments. The non-anamorphic transfer is a surprising disappointment, but the sole interesting supplement is quite informative. Worth a rental.