Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé is most renowned for Yeelen, an African epic that’s as entertaining as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings trilogy while engaging intellectually with its mythological sources. In only his second feature since, Cissé brings his critical acumen to bear on what amounts to another kind of genre picture: a marital melodrama between a wealthy couple entangled in a polygamous web. It’s a premise as sordid as a basic cable reality show, though it reflects a widespread reality in West Africa, where having multiple spouses is legal in many countries.
Cissé targets his film specifically at polygamy’s prevalence among the leisure class, supposedly the most educated and refined citizens of their society and yet, judging by the antics in this film, as petty, selfish, and socially destructive as anyone else. Most of the trouble is started by Mimi (Sokona Gakou), who’s fed up with her man Issa’s (Assane Kouyate) affairs while busy denying her own action on the side with another married man. To his credit, Cissé resists sentimentality at every turn, presenting a very complicated woman who at turns is selfish, insecure, and gloriously defiant in a world where men ultimately seem to hold the upper hand. The exhausting twists and turns between Mimi and Issa, tenderly canoodling in their luxury mansion one moment while threatening each other with firearms the next, threaten to veer the film’s sober social observations into soap opera hysterics.
But more than probing the societal norms that undermine his salacious couple’s bid at happiness, Cissé is also out to dissect the sordid relationship between storytelling and reality. It’s no accident that Issa is a film director: In an early scene, he coaches his actors on how to express jealous rage; by the end, he gets to enact it in real life. Is Min Yé a thinking person’s Nollywood movie, refracting that industry’s sensational entertainments against a self-reflexive lens? At times Cissé may succeed too well at distancing us: The romantic rapport between Mimi and Issa is all but absent, lost in a drone of declamatory acting—typical of African cinema, admittedly an acquired taste. If the wearisome back-and-forth emotional warfare of Cissé‘s film is meant as a reproach against his society’s dominant modes of pleasure (both cinematic and romantic), it amounts to a movie more rewarding to reflect on than to experience.