Félicité is many things. On the one hand, it’s a story about female power. On the other, it’s a love story, although not overtly so. You could also go and watch this film and enjoy it solely for the musical performances, which are exquisite. Félicité has a transcendent quality, the kind of film that resists easy categorization, shifting in tone and pace as one part of the story fades dreamily into the next.
Even synopsizing the plot is tricky because ‘plot’ is not really a priority here. As we are plunged into Félicité’s world of late-night singing and broken fridges, we learn that her son, Samo, has been in an accident and requires an expensive operation in order to save his broken leg. This kicks off Félicité’s frantic journey across the lively streets of Kinshasa as she attempts to raise the money. Helping her at various junctures is Tabu, a drunk who hangs around the bar Félicité performs in nightly and seems to have slept with every female customer in the place. Their relationship is complex; we get the
impression Tabu wants to ‘be’ with Félicité but for whatever reason, she is reluctant to let this happen.
Once Félicité’s hunt for money is abruptly cut short, and her son leaves the hospital, the story (and the main issue driving it) peters out somewhat. The rest of the film alternates between focusing on the developing relationship between Félicité and Tabu and Tabu’s attempts to revive Samo’s spirit, who is understandably depressed following his accident. It’s at this point, about halfway, that the story begins to drag a little, although the musical performances peppered throughout the film’s runtime stop it from ever becoming boring. Watching these scenes, particularly in the cinema, is like being teleported into that steamy club in the Congo and witnessing the performance live, with Véronique Tshanda Beya Mbutu standing right in front of you.
She is such a powerful and engaging actress and singer and it’s in these scenes that her strength and beauty really ooze from the screen. Director Alain Gomis chooses to shoot the majority of the film in extreme close up, and in doing so achieves an unrivalled level of intimacy with his characters. The curves of the actors’ bodies, the sheen of their skin, the features of their faces; all of these details are lingered on, filling the frame, making the film feel very personal.
We are right inside the lives of these characters for two hours. We are also placed right in the middle of the Congo, and the picture Gomis paints of the story’s setting seems completely authentic and teeming with energy. Everything is built up in layers, depicting Félicité’s interior and exterior life; in fact, in one striking sequence following Samo’s return home, frames are literally layered on top of frames so that the characters seem to be melting into one another.
There is an intriguingly arthouse side to Félicité, in the way that it is shot and edited but also in its sound design. During a couple of the performance scenes the music we can see being played by Félicité’s band is juxtaposed with what we can hear, as though what is below the surface is being exposed and we are transcending through the story’s many layers.
Félicité is a highly innovative piece of cinema and shows us a part of the world that we rarely get to see on screen. The combination of sound and visuals make for a lively,
immersive experience, even if the story appears to run out of steam once the central conflict is resolved. It’s a film that breathes, with music that will get right inside your soul and characters that will stay with you.
Review by Jade O’Halloran
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