beyond the canon: touki bouki + breathless

I wrote this essay for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s screening of Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). It’s part of their monthly Beyond the Canon series, which questions the white and male biases of film history by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion.

Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty is often described as an “African Godard.” His debut feature, Touki Bouki (1973), bears striking similarities to Jean-Luc Godard’s own firecracker first feature Breathless (1960). Both films center on a young couple as they swindle their way through the city with impossible, punk-ish cool; both are shot in a handheld, improvisatory style replete with jump-cuts.

But describing Mambéty in terms of Godard minimizes the former’s fierce originality and the historical rupture that separates the two auteurs. In the same year that Breathless premiered, setting the tone for the French New Wave, Senegal achieved independence from France. “The impulse for what I do came at that moment of liberation back in the 60s,” Mambéty once said, “and is inspired more by my understanding of the limits of possibility than by any developments or trends in European film at the time.” His seminal filmography railed against the postcolonial temptation to mimic the West and sought a distinctively homegrown, African grammar of aesthetics and politics.

Godard’s Breathless is animated by an insouciant paradox: written on-the-fly and riddled with uneven pacing and direct addresses, it rebels against classical conventions, while also professing a deep love for the movies, especially Hollywood noirs. As petty thief Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a self-styled Humphrey Bogart, careens through Paris in stolen cars with his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), Godard inundates the film with references from Budd Boetticher and Jean-Pierre Melville to Rilke and Bach. Although DP Raoul Coutard shot in natural light and with documentary immediacy, Paris becomes its own, romantic cliché in Breathless—a place contained entirely within the language of music, literature, and cinema.

In Touki Bouki, Mambéty pursues an inverse task: to give cinematic and musical utterance to the zeitgeist of a home rarely seen through the eyes of its own people during colonization. The film’s affectations stem from Mambéty’s intimate relation to Dakar, which he never left to live or study abroad, but which the film’s protagonists, Mory and his girlfriend Anta, ironically seek to escape. From a graphic opening inside an abattoir, Touki Bouki segues into verite scenes of the locals’ daily lives, and then turns to surreal satire as Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) try to rob the city’s wealthy socialites for a ticket to Paris. Mambéty modulates his techniques to capture Dakar’s postcolonial fragmentations, conjuring a hybrid iconography that feels unique to the time and place. Unlike the borrowed American swagger of Michel in Breathless, Mory’s Gothic cool is entirely his own: his bike is adorned with a zebu skull, a nod to his roots as a cowherd and his renegade flair.

If Breathless pre-echoes Godard’s mandate, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” Touki Bouki literalizes it with jagged experiments in montage: a bravura sequence intersperses oblique glimpses of love-making with crashing ocean waves and the skinning of a goat. But Mambéty’s structural inspiration comes from the African oral tradition. The film’s title derives from this mode of storytelling—“bouki” is Wolof for the trickster trope of the hyena—as does its sense of rigor. Even as Touki Bouki zigzags between plot events and tragicomic asides, it exhibits a tight, circular logic set to its layered soundtrack of avant-garde jazz, Western pop, African drums, and the flute. The film’s allegorical force is never beyond comprehension: in an unforgettable image, Mory stands naked atop a French car emblazoned with the American flag, singing a griot song.

Both Breathless and Touki Bouki share an existential malaise. In Godard’s film, it is the emptiness behind Michel’s hat and coat; a reminder that, in contrast to the psychological conventions of character, we are never privy to Michel’s identity or motivations. The malaise in Touki Bouki has a name and a sound: “Paris, Paris, Paris,” sings Josephine Baker on the soundtrack. Mambéty, who sadly only made one more feature (1992’s Hyenas) before his death at 53 in 1998, captured vividly the burden of the colonized: the corrupting allure of the metropole and illusions of one’s own inferiority. If Breathless is a heady exercise in style, Touki Bouki is an exercise in pathos. That Mambéty also did it with unparalleled style makes him a true original.

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