Karmen Geï

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Karmen Geï

Ever since French novelist Prosper Mérimée concocted the character of Carmen in the mid-19th century, the story of the free-spirited, ill-fated lover-girl has been adapted to opera, ballet, and more movies than just about any fictional creation this side of Godzilla. In life and in art, Carmen is irresistible. The latest variation on the theme comes from Senegalese writer-director Joseph Gaï Ramaka, who sets Karmen Geï in modern-day coastal Dakar, and casts the temptress' tale as a study of political oppression and personal freedom. Djeïnaba Diop Gaï plays the title character, a sexy dissident whose songs and dances of protest land her in jail, which she quickly escapes by seducing her captors, male and female. Ramaka stages Karmen Geï as a naturalistic musical, with chanting in the streets and saloon-sung pop ballads standing in for the big production numbers of a conventional musical. The rest of the music comes from the live sounds of a beachfront city: the lapping of waves and the whistling of birds, as well as the suggestive rubbing of skin against skin whenever Gaï makes love. The plot of Karmen Geï becomes convoluted as the title character moves in and out of cells and beds, and most of the relevant backstory is filled in by the singing of various townspeople, performed in the call-and-response tradition of African folktales. But the particulars of Gaï's story don't matter as much as the particulars of how she lives her life. Karmen Geï opens with Gaï performing a spirited, sensual dance, which is repeated throughout the film: She shakes her body and tugs at her clothing brazenly and almost violently, as if demonstrating that nothing can confine her. She's hotheaded and righteous, a saint and a sinner, and she risks the wrath of the authorities because, as one person warns her, she's "too free." Karmen Geï would be more effective if Ramaka dealt more specifically with the implications of that freedom in the story's West African locale, but between the intoxicating sound mix and the hypnotic human movement, the film offers plenty of powerful impressionism to make up for its lack of a coherent statement. The real meaning of Karmen Geï rests in Gaï's grinning defiance, where Ramaka deals most strongly and successfully with the enduring attraction of the Carmen concept.