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Blu-ray Review: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki on the Criterion Collection

In Touki Bouki, rejection of one’s homeland is inextricably bound to a glamorization of the colonizer’s homeland.

3.5

Touki Bouki

Josephine Baker’s “Paris, Paris,” a romantic ode to the titular city, is often heard throughout Djibril Diop Mambéty’s droll, radically stylized feature-length debut from 1973, Touki Bouki. And always the song skips at the same point in the sampled refrain, leaving us to feel as if we’re stuck in a loop of unfulfilled aspiration alongside the Senegalese couple at the center of the film. Baker once said, “I have two loves, my country and Paris,” and Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), who yearn to emigrate to the City of Lights, also feel the painful pull of two cultures.

Much like its densely layered sound design, an amalgam of ambient sounds and musical styles, Touki Bouki’s visual strategy is remarkably impressionistic. The film’s editing, which often creates poetic meaning between seemingly disparate images, bears the influence of early Soviet cinema and the French New Wave. Yet, in his almost dogged elision of narrative cohesion, Mambéty finds his own inventive and idiosyncratic ways of conveying the tortured limbo state of his characters, cleverly blurring the lines between dreams and reality, present and future, and the comic and the tragic.

Touki Bouki’s two most explicit visual motifs are cattle being slaughtered and serene shots of the vast, glistening ocean. Their symbolic functions are clear and direct—the former a corporeal reminder of the historical brutalization of the African people, and the latter a false promise of a better life in the homeland of Senegal’s colonizers—but Mambéty also allows these recurring images to intimately reflect Mory and Anta’s emotional conflicts.

One comedic sequence finds Mory and Anta visiting a gigolo friend (Ousseynou Diop) and taking his money and fashionable clothes before returning to their village in a gaudy car that they’ve also stolen. Mambéty then cuts between shots of the outlaw couple on the road and separate footage of a large crowd on the sides of a different road cheering, playing into the lovers’ dreams of being celebrated for making their way into the nouveau riche. When everyone in their village, even the typically irascible Aunt Oumy (Aminata Fall), fawningly greet them with open arms, the moment unfolds as a bizarre and humorous wish-fulfillment fantasy of a couple trying to escape their burdensome existence in Dakar at any cost.

Mambéty understands the couple’s scheming as a symptom of the alienation and frenzied desperation that’s inherent to the post-colonial condition in Africa, particularly among younger generations. In Touki Bouki, rejection of one’s homeland is inextricably bound to a glamorization of the colonizer’s homeland. The fragmented nature of Mory and Anta’s existence reaches its peak expression when the former chooses to stay behind in Dakar, leaving Anta to sail off to France on her own. That Mambéty never made films outside of Senegal may align him with Mory, but he doesn’t take sides here, as he gives rich, tragic, and, above all, empathetic expression to the force that drives individuals like Anta, out of bitterness, to leave a homeland that can’t be unseen as a place of conquest.

Image/Sound

For this release, the Criterion Collection has used the same 2K digital transfer of Touki Bouki (restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata) that was also included in the distributor’s first World Cinema Project box set from 2013. The film originally shared a disc with Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann’s Redes on that set, and while the difference between the two transfers is mostly negligible, this new, standalone release allows for a higher bitrate that adds sharpness and clarity to the image, and the colors, particularly reds and yellows, are more vibrant. The audio is equally strong, bolstered by a mix that accentuates the intricacies that Djibril Diop Mambéty worked into the sound design.

Extras

Two of the extras here previously appeared on Criterion’s first World Cinema Project box set: a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese and a 12-minute interview with director Abderrahmane Sissako, who praises Mambéty’s unusual approach to narrative and discusses the filmmaker’s fondness for working without a completed script. New to this release is a 25-minute conversation between musician Wasis Diop and filmmaker Mati Diop, Mambéty’s brother and niece, respectively, recorded in 2012. The two engage in a fruitful dialogue, and some friendly disagreements, about Mambéty’s ambiguous portrayals of mankind and his films’ often challenging depictions of agitation and violence. The disc also includes a newly restored version of the director’s 1968 short film, Contras’ City, and a foldout booklet includes a wonderful essay by critic and programmer Ashley Clark, who teases out the complexities of Mambéty’s sound design, symbolism, and his creative approach to typical Griot narratives.

Overall

Criterion’s release of Touki Bouki would benefit from a few more substantial extras to help contextualize such a groundbreaking work, but the A/V quality is top-notch.

Cast: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang, Aminata Fall, Ousseynou Diop Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 1973 Release Date: March 9, 2021 Buy: Video

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