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DIRECTED BY: Djibril Diop Mambéty
FEATURING: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang
PLOT: A young misfit and his girlfriend take off for Paris, committing a series of petty thefts on the way to fund their trip.
COMMENTS: This landmark film from Senegal, newly released by the Criterion Collection in a stunning HD restoration, begins with cowherds leading their flock through the pasture. An idyllic scene, but it soon turns dark… dark red, to be exact. The cows are on their way to be slaughtered—a scene that we are made to witness in all its gory detail. As the blood splatters and covers the slaughterhouse floor, the screen turns a sickening red usually reserved for grimy 1970s pseudo-snuff films. Although we never learn the exact circumstances, it’s a memory burned onto the protagonist’s psyche that will be recalled later at a crucial moment.
The central story of Touki Bouki is straight out of films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. Rebel without a cause Mory decides to shake off the dregs of Dakar and head north to Paris with his girlfriend Anta, first setting off on a carefree crime spree to raise the funds. But director Djibril Diop Mambety isn’t just a stylist looking to transplant French cinema into an African setting. After all, Senegal had only recently gained their independence from France at the time this film was made. There’s a sarcastic edge to much of the self-conscious French New Wave flourishes, like the song on the radio incessantly crooning “Paris, Paris, Paris,” and jokes at the expense of those who have sold themselves out to the new neo-colonial order.
Even so, Touki Bouki isn’t a political film, either. Although he didn’t have any formal film school training, Mambety had a knack for visual poetry, observing his surroundings and making evocative connections without the need to impose any explicit political ideology on top of it. For example, in another graphic scene not suitable for the squeamish, a goat is slaughtered—likely for sacrificial purposes. A woman takes off her coat, revealing nothing underneath. An inverted cross-like ornament glimmers in the hot desert sun. Waves crash beneath the edge of a cliff. There is a feeling of mystery, danger, and desperation. Mambety doesn’t feel the need to explain, distilling his imagery into poetry–conveying life as a waking dream not easily understood.
As the story begins to unfold, these dreamlike qualities take over. Mory and Anta embark on a road to nowhere, committing petty crimes and entertaining imaginary admirers. A deranged Tarzan disciple, one of the few white people in the film, is seen caterwauling at birds in a tree, only to come down and steal Mory’s motorcycle. Mory and Anta are able to steal a huge amount of money from a tribal benefit to support the building of a monument for Charles de Gaulle, right from under the eyes of the police officer in charge of guarding it. We don’t see the crime itself, only the lovers’ triumphant escape with a gigantic trunk full of cash. Later, Mory steals an entire wardrobe’s worth of clothing from a gay playboy’s mansion, as a decadent party goes on outside.
The line between the real world and the lovers’ fantasy world is always blurred. Memories collide with the present, and time is all but nonexistent. When Mory finally has his chance to leave Senegal, Mambety uses an allegorical montage to signal his change of heart, a stunning moment of free-flowing visual poetry that leads into an impressionistic dream sequence to end the film. Mambety’s vision is vivid and defiant, integrating French influence into a framework that is proudly African, with logic-defying montage and cinematography so vivid and striking that it threatens to explode right off the screen.
Even for those who have seen Touki Bouki before, Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release upgrades the experience. Along with a vivid 2K restoration of the film itself, there are interviews with admirers such as and Abderrahmane Sissako, as well as Mambety’s brother, Wasis Diop, who worked on the production. But the biggest revelation here is Contras’ City, Mambety’s debut short film from 1968. A feverish tour through the city of Dakar, this tongue-in-cheek city symphony explores the clash between different cultures and religions. There are soaring views of architecture, occasional moments of harsh realism, but always laced with the sharp sarcastic edge that also defines Touki Bouki.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: