Carmen, now portrayed as “Karmen” by Djeïnaba Diop Gaï, is the tale of a femme fatale-esque and transgressively sexual seductress. In the original opera, she lures a solider called José away from his current lover and duties, only to lose interest and become more infatuated by toreador Escamillo. In the end, José stabs Carmen and kills her, resulting in a show which punctuates themes of sexuality, morality, societal rules, and power.
Joseph Gaï Ramaka, the director of Karmen Geï, utilizes the old tale of Carmen with the contemporary setting of Dakar, Senegal in order to make a statement on the current status of the country.
Much of Carmen‘s original landscape is changed. While there have been countless reiterations of Carmen on film, many have included the original operatic music.
In the South African U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005), the characters sing the original opera pieces.
Even in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, which includes its own original hip hop musical numbers, the original overture can be heard as score.
In Karmen Geï, however, no original music from the famous opera is played throughout the film. There is music, however. Ramaka incorporates a “wonderful blend of jazz, rhythmic African percussion, pop music and rap” (Garcia).
The films opening scene, which exemplifies this use of music.
In this way, Ramaka obtains the spirit of the original Carmen, without necessarily remaking it. It’s almost as if he is creating a new version of Carmen from scratch, rather than adapting it. The use of this setting does is not only found in the film’s musical numbers.
Ramaka’s sets and native costumes combine to create a blazing palette against which Gai, Amazonian in stature, struts, dances and sings. The writer-director wastes no opportunity to exploit the dramatic African landscape–location shooting took place in Dakar–but Africa isn’t simply a backdrop for Karmen. It represents her genesis. She and Africa are inseparable.
– Maria Garcia
The plot is transmuted as well to aptly reflect certain social changes and status within the contemporary country. For example, the original smugglers are dealing in drugs, the solider José is turned into a police corporal, and bullfighter Escamillo is modernized as a musician.
The film is able to comment on Senegalese “postcolonial excess, of governmental greed and waste” through its themes of control and power (Nelson). The scene where Karmen dances at Lamine Diop’s wedding (Lamine being this reiteration’s version of José) accentuates this idea. In the company of royalty, Karmen yells out to Lamine and his new wife that “You are evil. You have swallowed up my country. We’ll eat your guts.”
However, possibly one of the most drastic differences in this retelling of Carmen is the addition of the character Angélique, the prison warden in love with the inmate Karmen, who lets her free.
For the context of the film, it is important to note that “although gays and lesbians have always been a part of the social landscape of Dakar, homosexuality as such is illegal in Senegal” (Nelson).
This Karmen’s embracing of non-straight sex highlights and modernizes her sexual liberality as well as her threat to the patriarchy. However, Ramaka takes it a step further. He could have easily gender-bent the José or Escamillo characters to portray her as bisexual/pansexual; but by adding a new a character she clearly has feelings for, Ramaka adds a layer of commentary that suggests a true love found in a person of the same sex can only end tragically in the modern social landscape of Dakar.
Lamine’s descent into madness and his ultimate act — committing the murder of Karmen — as well as Angélique’s dramatic withdrawal from the world of the living and her tragic suicide beautifully articulate Gai Ramaka’s perception of the Senegalese state itself as sick, as perverted, as grotesquely utilizing anything it can to control everything at all costs.
– Steven Nelson
I, however, would argue a optimistic alternative to this change. In many adaptations of Karmen, the audience is meant to sympathize with José, an “innocent man” who was led astray by a temptress. However, Ramaka gives us an emotional connection to Karmen, using Angélique as, perhaps, an anchor in comparison to her less-invested romantic affairs.
In the original, only Karmen is killed. She is cast out from the land of the living, no longer able to control men any longer. But with Angélique also dead, Karmen Geï may imply that in the end, Karmen ends up with her true lover. Someone who she could not rightfully be with in the Senegal’s current state.