Strong Female Performances

in 29th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Amber Wilkinson

One of the most notable elements of the films in contention for the FIPRESCI award for the Best Foreign Language film of the year in Palm Springs, was the number of strong central female performances – from Daniela Vega’s measured expression of grief in Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” to Diane Kruger’s very different evocation of loss in Fatih Akin’s “In The Fade” (Aus dem Nichts) and Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka’s compelling performance as an elderly environmentalist in “Spoor”.

Taking its place among them was Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu’s outstanding turn as the title character of Alain Gomis’s “Félicité”, the Senegalese submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, which ultimately took the FIPRESCI prize. Appearing in nearly every frame of the movie, newcomer Mputu is magnetic as a part-time bar singer, who finds herself trying to move heaven and earth to raise cash after her son has an accident.

This plot synopsis hardly does the film justice, as while this might provide an entire film for a less thoughtful, more formulaic director, it is just the departure point for Gomis to shine a light on every aspect of Félicité’s life, not just with her son, but as she starts to form a tentative romance with bar regular Tabu (Papi Mpaka) on her own terms.

A masterful opening scene, shot with fluid grace by cinematographer Céline Bozon, draws us both into Félicité’s world and her viewpoint. As she watches the comings and goings of the local bar where she performs, so do we, before she steps up to the mic and immerses herself and us in the music as life and conversations continue to swirl around her.

As the film progresses, we will return to the bar, which acts like a chorus, but also emphasises that gruelling though Félicité’s dash for cash and subsequent ministering to her son may be, she still has to continue the day-to-day aspects of her life. Gomis constructs an impressive bridge between the film’s documentary aspect and its more artistic leanings. Scenes in the bar and in Kinshasa (where the film was shot) are vibrant and alive with the spirit of reality but the director also includes interludes involving orchestral and choral performances of Arvo Pärt and dreamy night sequences which revel in contemplation. These elements flow together to give us a real sense of character study from deep within, not something simply reliant on outward actions and reactions but on inner emotions. By the end, we aren’t just thinking about Félicité, we’re feeling like her too.