It didn’t dawn on me until now that this will be one of the few Criterion Months where we didn’t cover a film that came out during the height of the French New Wave, although we will cover a French New Wave director later in their career. Fortunately, Touki Bouki is a movie that embodies the style and ideals of the French New Wave about as well as any movie I’ve seen, French or otherwise. It’s also a movie that carries on our tradition of covering Criterion movies about France’s occupation of African countries, be it the Algerian War, the French Foreign Legion’s presence in Djibouti, or another great Senegalese director depicting a woman’s emigration to France. Unlike a few of these movies, Touki Bouki actually takes place in Africa (and is proud of it), yet the influence of France is a constant, repeated presence.
One very overt reason that Touki Bouki feels akin to the French New Wave is that its extremely loose plot feels straight out of one of Godard’s movies about young lovers either on the run or getting into mischief. Mory (played by Magaye Niang) is a cowherd who likes to ride around on his motorcycle with a bull-skull attached to it, while Anta (Mareme Niang, no relation) is a student living in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. We don’t get to know a ton about them as characters, other than that they’ve grown tired of their life in Senegal and wish to escape to Paris.
This simple yearning sets them on the road, where they’re looking for ways to scrounge up enough cash to take a boat to France. This results in several amusing episodes — some of them funny, some of them upsetting — where the two of them run into colorful characters (literally, because the fashion in the film is wonderfully vibrant) and situations. This culminates in them eventually robbing a wealthy man who appears to be gay, stealing both his money and most of his immaculate wardrobe, which allows them to appear more posh, but also buy a ticket to France and give them the funds they need to thrive. However, once they finally make it to the boat, Mory gets cold feet and yearns to be reunited with his beloved motorcycle.
The first thing that jumps out about Touki Bouki is just how stylistically radical it is, yet it never succumbs to being purely experimental cinema. While there are certain sequences that are shot out of order or where clinical plot details are revealed in non-linear ways, it never quite unravels narratively, due to its absorbing mix of editing, imagery, and a frenetic soundtrack. Its the kind of film that pretty much puts you off-balance from the get-go, as its opening sequence features an extremely graphic depiction of a cow being slaughtered, which isn’t even the last time we see a real-life animal’s throat get slit in unwavering, bloody detail. This is to say that this film certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you’re willing to get on its delirious wavelength, it’s hard to look away, even if what’s presented onscreen begs you to look away.
Perhaps one reason that the film works so well despite its unhinged style is that it does seem deeply invested in its setting and the people who inhabit it. The movie often feels like a documentary about life in Senegal, as director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s camera frequently has this “man on the street” level view of the city streets as well as the rural countryside. It feels like there’s always something interesting happening, either at the forefront or on the margins of each scene, and whether the people (and animals) know that they’re being filmed for a movie feels beside the point.
What also makes the film feel so vibrant is that it’s able to combine the authenticity of this documentary approach with the point of view and creativity of narrative filmmaking. Along with its psychedelic cascade of images, the movie also employs sound in a very striking way, often using background noise that has nothing to do with the scene happening in front of the camer. Its soundtrack memorably uses Josephine Baker’s “Paris, Paris” in a repetitive way that’s at first charming, but then starts to feel like the characters are stuck in some sort of pop culture-influenced purgatory.
The only thing that really makes me hesitant to give this movie five stars is that its singular style trumps the story and character development so much that it’s a little hard to grasp what the film is ultimately trying to say. However, from the way the ending unfolds, the best conclusion I can come to is that the Touki Bouki is about these characters wanting to find some escape from themselves by venturing to Europe. But after the film shows us all of the unbelievable and unique things about their corner of Africa, they’re left with a sense of attachment to their home.
This feels in line with Mambéty’s background, as he was one of the few African directors of his generation to not seek a formal film education in France or Russia, and instead ended up spending his career in Senegal, though sadly he would only direct one other feature-length film (1992’s Hyenas) before dying at the age of 54. So despite this film being more about technique and somewhat abstract ideas, there is a personal element to the film. Also, without Mambéty’s lack of formal film education, it’s hard to say that Touki Bouki would be nearly as eager to flout conventional film language in favor of a style all its own.