One story which was clearly not in need of being told anew is Prosper Merimee’s “Carmen,” which was immortalized via Georges Bizet’s opera and then filmed 50-odd times…and I do mean odd (including the silent Chaplin romp “Burlesque of Carmen” and the utterly ridiculous “Carmen on Ice” with Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt). But you can’t keep a bad girl down and Carmen is back, transplanted to contemporary Senegal and reimagined as “Karmen Gei.”
Don’t try to look for Merimee’s tale or Bizet’s music, for the former is barely acknowledged and the latter is completely absent. This time around, the eponymous anti-heroine is a bisexual beauty who runs a smuggling ring, drives a love struck lesbian prison warden to suicide, kidnaps a jailed soldier by driving through the doors of a police station, and possesses an astonishing quantity of designer clothing without seeming to have any closet space to store this wardrobe. Karmen Gei’s wild ways seem to be in the genes, as her mother runs a nightclub and (despite her advanced years and wheelchair-bound physical state) possesses enough emotional force to order the police out of her establishment without so much as raising her voice. The one main leftover from the Merimee and Bizet inspirations is the love story between this vixenish seductress and the soldier whose life she ruins, except this time around the soldier takes a backseat while Karmen Gei spends more time in platonic bonds with a rakish singer and an elderly lighthouse keeper.
Writer-director Joseph Gai Ramaka makes his feature film debut with “Karmen Gei” and his storytelling skills could use substantial improvement. The film drifts illogically, often losing track of its purpose and serving up sequences which make absolutely no sense (why is Karmen Gei the entertainment at a wedding and why did she suddenly decide to assault the bride?). There are brief and occasional musical numbers scattered about which literally come out of nowhere and disappear just as abruptly. And if Ramaka was responsible for bringing in David Murray’s tepid musical score (a bland blend of lite jazz and second-rate Afropop), some sort of reprimand is clearly in order.
But “Karmen Gei” is saved from total disaster by one asset: the astonish presence of Djeinaba Diop Gai. This woman is perhaps the single most stunning presence on today’s screen–I’m not certain if you could call her an actress, but who cares if she is acting? Diop Gai is truly an African goddess come to life, towering physically and emotionally over everyone around her. Everything about her is amazing: from her killer legs to her wicked mane of braided hair to her vibrant smile (which could energize half of Africa) to her luscious skin (which makes beads of sweat look like streams of diamonds). She dances with an abandon that can race a heart, and sings with a hush that could lullaby you to sleep, and shuffles cards like a Monte Carlo sharpie, and makes grand entrances…indeed, roughly half of the film is devoted to her making grand entrances (including a rise from a foamy bubble bath worthy of Botticelli). No matter how silly or cryptic “Karmen Gei” becomes, Diop Gai always saves the day by just strolling on screen. If anyone in Hollywood had a fraction of a brain, they would get this woman over to American ASAP.
While the screen didn’t really need another Carmen, it certainly needs a knockout femme fatale like Diop Gai. Hopefully, Carmen can get a much-needed rest and audiences can get much more of this stunning African icon-in-waiting.