The (African) portrait of a lady, Alain Gomis’ Félicité is a dazzling, vibrant depiction of Africa, womanhood and dreams of a life.
African Queenby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Filmed in Senegal but set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alain Gomis’ Félicité isn’t just a portrait of its eponymous heroine, a bar singer and strong African woman unchained from her usual routine when her son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) is badly injured in a moped accident that forces Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu) to reclaim her unpaid debts from friends and throw herself on the (humiliating) mercy of strangers. It’s also a portrait of Africa – an anthropological gaze of life there, its busy streets and bustling markets lent an otherworldly serenity by Arvo Pärt’s music, performed by an orchestra and choir that – beyond its colonial narrative of Africans excelling in a white space – seems to have no other toehold in the narrative.
The beauty of Céline Bozon’s cinematography however pervades every pixel of Félicité, the camera lovingly observing her downcast eyes and vigorously dancing body. And it’s through her, that Gomis uncovers his Africa. Vibrant, noisy and uncontainable. Lingering with observational delicacy on details such as a lowering storm whipping up corrugated iron in the street. And yet it’s also the portrait of a strong woman, a lioness who’ll stop at nothing to take care of her son.
So it’s strange when Félicité‘s Bressonian search for money abruptly halts, the film making a tonal u-turn as Félicité seems to silently and emotionlessly implode. But it’s also where Gomis’ film really takes off, detailing with wordless efficiency the emotional trauma of a strong woman, readjusting to life after crisis. It’s strange to see the vigorous Félicité staring out wistfully at ponds. But as her nights and occasionally her days become haunted by ethereal dreams, in which she meets an okapi, her son and Tabu (Papi Mpaka) or in which she comes close to submerging herself underwater, it becomes clear that Félicité is slowly finding her clarity. No longer willing to sing, Félicité remains silent, like her son. But as Tabu tends to them, repairing her fridge and sending away the wake of well-wishers, her world slowly opens up. And her single-person portrait finally becomes a diptych as Tabu joins her in the frame, even managing to coax a smile out of her.
With a brilliantly nuanced performance from Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, simultaneously sullen, vivacious, coquettish, Félicité is the African riposte to the West’s obsession with female portraits. And with its lingering camerawork and no-nonsense heroine creates an unusual and beautifully humanistic narrative.
Félicité premiered at the 67th Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear, and screens on 8 and 9 October 2017 in the 61st BFI London Film Festival.