Strand Releasing. 2017. Drama. 124 minutes.

RATING: 3 angels

For all the pain that colo­nial wars in Indochina and Algeria wrought upon France as a nation, the residue of those con­flicts has played no small part in the devel­op­ment of the most ethno­graph­i­cal­ly rich cin­e­ma of any Western nation in the past half cen­tu­ry. Beginning with the 1966 release of Franco-​Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, French cin­e­ma has sus­tained and ben­e­fit­ted from films cen­ter­ing on the lives and expe­ri­ences of French-​colonial peo­ples both in France and their nations of ori­gin. The inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed careers of such film­mak­ers as Sembène, Tran Anh Hung, Abdellatif Kechiche and Euzhan Palcy, among numer­ous oth­ers, tes­ti­fy to an uncom­mon will­ing­ness to embrace not just the Francophone dias­po­ra but the glob­al human dias­po­ra as seen through Francophone eyes. The recent suc­cess­es of Jacques Audiard’s Cannes-​winning Dheepan, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar-​nominated Mustang and Philippe Faucon’s Fatima sug­gest an inten­si­fy­ing of this par­tic­u­lar pos­ture in French cin­e­ma which Franco-​Senegalese film­mak­er Alain Gomis’ Félicité is per­fect­ly poised to exploit.

Winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear, Félicité is only Gomis’ fourth fea­ture film in six­teen years, but it is by far his best and most accom­plished. Whereas pre­vi­ous efforts like Andalucia and Aujourd’hui could seem at times more ambi­tious than suc­cess­ful in their attempts at wring­ing too much emo­tion out of too lit­tle plot, Félicité finds the direc­tor mov­ing clos­er to a for­mu­la that works. Congolese singer Véro Tshanda Beya makes an aus­pi­cious act­ing debut as Félicité, a Kinshasa night­club chanteuse and sin­gle moth­er whose defi­ant, inde­pen­dent spir­it is chal­lenged when tragedy befalls her son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), cre­at­ing an emo­tion­al open­ing for Tabu (Papi Mpaka), a local handy­man and jack-​of-​all-​repairs whose roman­tic over­tures Félicité has repeat­ed­ly rebuffed – until now.

The sim­ple nar­ra­tive frame­work is by design – Gomis needs only enough plot to afford his actors the space and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to wres­tle with the kinds of emo­tions that most peo­ple work scrupu­lous­ly to avoid. There real­ly isn’t even a need for res­o­lu­tion, though the fact that there is, in the end, a kind of res­o­lu­tion ulti­mate­ly feels almost like a con­trivance. In light of how com­fort­ably the rest of the film seems to accept the messy ran­dom­ness of life and the unman­age­abil­i­ty of human rela­tion­ships, that Gomis ulti­mate­ly feels the need to give his poet­ry a sense of inor­gan­ic final­i­ty is per­haps the only sig­nif­i­cant flaw in an oth­er­wise pro­found­ly hon­est por­trait of mod­ern womanhood.

While there’s no mis­tak­ing the real­ist influ­ence of film­mak­ers like Ken Loach and the Dardennes broth­ers, it’s Kechiche whom Gomis seems most intent on chan­nel­ing – seek­ing nar­ra­tive momen­tum through sheer force of inti­ma­cy – not just with the char­ac­ters but with Kinshasa itself. Where he departs from the real­ist influ­ence is in the film’s rather sur­pris­ing sec­ond hour, gen­tly mas­sag­ing view­ers from a voyeuris­tic van­tage into a sub­jec­tive one with a kind of soft-​surrealism meant to place them not just at Félicité’s side, but in her head. That’s a risky shift by any mea­sure, but Beya proves such a remark­able actress that the tran­si­tion goes by almost unno­ticed. Dialogue, for the most part, is super­flu­ous – it’s in Beya’s face and eyes that the most sig­nif­i­cant events take place; at times heart­break­ing, often gut-​wrenching, always deeply com­pelling. Where she goes, where Gomis leads her, view­ers will be only too will­ing to fol­low, for in her strength – and her sur­pris­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty – they will see the very best of themselves.

Expertly pho­tographed by Céline Bozon, the film also fea­tures an unusu­al but effec­tive musi­cal motif – inter­weav­ing Beya’s own per­for­mances of pop­u­lar local music, backed by the won­der­ful Kasai Allstars, with orches­tral per­for­mances of the music of Estonian com­pos­er Arvo Pårt by the Orchestre National de Kinshasa. The con­trast in styles is off­set by a shared raw­ness in the live per­for­mance that rip­ples through the film’s nar­ra­tive like fray­ing nerves – a musi­cal reflec­tion of Félicité her­self: con­fi­dent, inse­cure, con­flict­ed and for­ev­er search­ing for an elu­sive, even unat­tain­able harmony.

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