A durable figure who’s already seen screen incarnations in flamenco, hip-hop and even ’60s Euro sexploitation form, Carmen once again leaves the operatic arena for a new context in “Karmen,” Joseph Gai Ramaka’s semimusical Senegalese take on the classic tale. Though somewhat uneven in storytelling terms, this multinational co-production is so vividly alive with visual, sonic and performance energy that it overwhelms formal quibbles. A rare African feature tooled for — and meriting — broad commercial export, pic is a saucy, colorful delight sure to score arthouse coin and ancillary cult life among diverse auds worldwide.
Original title and initial sequences suggest this will be a very “Gei” Carmen indeed, as heroine is first glimpsed performing a virtual lap dance for a none-too-resistant female authority figure. The setting appears to be a bullfighting ring — but in fact it’s the yard enclosure for an island-bound women’s prison compound. There the Amazonian Karmen Gei (Jeinaba Diop Gai) entertains fellow inmates with a very public gyrational display that lands splay-legged atop the seat already occupied by aroused warden Angelique (Stephanie Biddle). Later, Karmen is duly delivered to the guv’s private quarters, where their explicit lovemaking briefly hint pic might follow the lead of Radley Metzger’s 1967 “Carmen, Baby” into softcore-kitsch terrain.
That proves a red herring, and indeed updated story’s lesbian aspect — though handled with notable, dignified sympathy later on — emerges as a less than central current. Overall, debut feature from French-trained Senegalese director-scenarist Ramaka sticks to the narrative outline first penned by French author Merimee (then popularized by Bizet’s opera), adding flavorful, mostly organic currents of bisexuality, political commentary and local culture to the sturdy basic tale.
Leaving her keeper sated and asleep, Karmen seizes her opportunity to escape. She’s next seen working her spectacular dancing mojo before military dictatorship high-rankers, whom she manages to thoroughly insult amid howling civilian onlookers.
Unamused authorities have her hustled off in the custody of humorless Col. Lamine Diop (Magaye Adama Niang). That’s a mistake, since even he can’t resist this bombshell’s siren call, and she easily escapes again.
Humiliated, Lamine finds himself behind bars, his career derailed. Karmen has her own sense of fair play, however. She quickly drafts some underworld associates to help bust the bewildered jarhead out, rewarding him further with a night’s carnal abandon. Postcoital bliss sours, though, when resolutely independent protag shows immediate signs of being no one-man woman.
Inevitably Lamine’s his possessiveness must claim Karmen’s life. This character has often been a pill for auds as well as title figure, and Niang doesn’t help matters with an overly sullen, closed-in perf amid a cast of extroverts. Script might have placed more emphasis on Biddle’s stoic yet smoldering warden — a missed opportunity underlined when Karmen later pegs Angelique as the one suitor she might have truly loved. Other subplots are erratically developed.
In general, “Karmen” works better on the level of atmosphere and buoyant, party-hearty set pieces than it does as a cogent action melodrama. Pic’s initial energy burst wanes, though not fatally, once story hits the downhill stretch.
Nonetheless, it’s still great fun. Neither p’opera nor conventional tuner, package finds many ways to integrate music that ranges from dynamic percussion busking to hymnals, proto-rap “toastings,” piano balladry, soundtracked Afropop and jazz. There are no real “production numbers,” sole non-naturalistic device being the neat use of ensemble-mimed choral recitative, which offers populist p.o.v. commentary on the action during numerous sequences.
Production design, costumes, and location shooting in Dakar make vivid contribs to feature’s lush, hot-colored palette. Effect is perhaps most readily comparable to “Black Orpheus,” the prototype for resetting Western romantic mythology amidst Third World cultural carnivalia. Occasional minor missteps aside, “Karmen” manages to transcend tourist exoticism, thanks in part to star Gai’s formidable presence — hers is the rare Carmen to really possess, rather than “act,” a self-possessed sexual magnetism that’s more femme vivre than fatale.
Tech aspects are first-rate down the line.