Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 29, 2009 5:32 pm 
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Boorish Bovary

Cissé, a mature (67-year-old) African director more known for folkloric village tales, veers off in a completely new direction in this lengthy (135-minute) exploration of marital conflict in an upper-class couple involving an overbearing courtesan-like woman and two polygamous men. It's a direction that has been favorably heralded locally by the Malian audience, but isn't likely to win admirers in Europe or America.

The setting is the capital of Mali, Bamako, and the scenes wander from one palatial house to another. The action involves repeated encounters, arguments, legal consultations and divorce proceedings, but as it grows more and more repetitious and -- dare one say it? -- annoying, the chief amusement becomes admiring the ladies' colorful hair, turbans, and matching dresses, which as in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love (which probably shouldn't really be mentioned in the same breath with this disaster) never change style but always vary in color and material. Interest in the European and American film markets seems unlikely, especially since dialogue is not in the official language, French, but the local patois, Bambara.

A Malian writer has called Mimi (Sokana Gakou) "an African Madame Bovary." Okay. She has in common with the tragic French literary figure an adulterous choice that dooms her marriage. But Cisse is no Flaubert. This story is no more sharply crafted than the average telenovela. You watch one scene after another wondering if it is ever going to lead anywhere, and the resolution is absurd, because it suggests some sort of peace between Mimi and Issa (Assane Kouyate), her filmmaker husband, when it's quite obvious that she is far too inconsistent, self-indulgent, and demanding to be worth bothering with and she has ruined her marriage many times over. She comes off as both glamorous and tacky, a fifty-something African Paris Hilton. Issa comes off as dignified, ironic, but foolish and weak.

Mimi's boyfriend is Abba (Alou Sissoko), a dealer in fish (and he seems rather slippery and slimy). Also a wealthy man, Abba has two wives, who are none too pleased with his affair. Issa has another wife too. Mimi doesn't like that. But though the film clearly shows the double standard that applies in African marriages, calling this a feminist film seems a considerable stretch given that its "heroine" is so boorish. Mimi has a palatial house of her own with female servants on duty day and night, who don't need TV, since they have the dramas Mimi puts on to entertain them. They're addressed in a haughty, rude manner by their mistress.

Mimi is trained as a lawyer, and claims she makes her country billions of dollars through her work for a national development agency, but as Variety reviewer Alissa Simon says, "it's unclear when she actually works; her entire screen time is spent scheming, lying or complaining about her personal relationships." What she does do is lie about, have assignations when the whim strikes her with Abba, and model an endless wardrobe of outfits with dramatic jewelry to go with them. But work? We see her at it only once, early on.

This is one of the chief failings of the film: while it goes into wearying detail about the rows between Mimi and Issa, making this read more like a reality show than a film, there is no context of social or working life outside the marital problems, and no sense of action in any sense moving forward through work or outside events.

Reviewers have commented that the visuals are too dark and not sharp enough. In addition some outdoor shots of streets and fields are washed out and downright blurry. The darkness is not so bothersome because the people are so colorful, none more so than the super-sized Mimi, who surely must be some kind of caricature of a Malian nouveau riche type. But the prolixity of the dialogue and the lack of effective editing make her character become irritating rather than enlightening.

Inclusion of a movie this disappointing in a film festival must be explained by " the current dearth of sub-Saharan African filmmaking" Alissa Simon notes. When one considers that three years ago the New York Film Festival showed Abderrahmane Sissako's outstanding and emotionally rich political drama Bamako, this dearth seems a very sad turn of events.

Shown as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009.

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