Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Alain Gomis's Félicité (2017) is exclusively playing December 9, 2017 - January 8, 2018 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
It has become something of a bitter joke to speak of “strong women” in film. Not because cinema has suddenly become flooded with portraits of a wide variety of women and we need not point out the lack of such roles anymore, but because the idea is so basic it’s almost dehumanizing to ask for. The underlying plea is: write a character that’s complex, contains multitudes, has or fights for their agency. Write a human, please. The idea also has become simplistically defined, where “strong” is reduced to physical strength or the ability to bear endless suffering. In this way, strong becomes defined by a status quo “masculine” norm: the formula enshrined since the likes of Odysseus, the epic hero getting it done on their own.
Where there’s room to grow a concept of strength, then, returns to the original call for complexity. What if strength wasn’t only measured in one’s individualistic capability—as everything from the American Dream to the base tenants of capitalism would lead us to believe—but rather in an ability to grow as humans outwards towards the world? Not to close ourselves off from it, but to have the bravery to interact with it? For me, this was the profound core of Alain Gomis’s latest film, Félicité.
Winner of the Berlinale Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, Best Film at FESPACO, and setting a new record at the Africa Movie Academy Awards by taking home six statues, Félicité follows a nightclub singer of the same name (an unforgettable debut performance by Véronique Beya Mputu) in Kinshasa. Her life is one of a proud self-sufficiency, as she earns her living with the power of her incredible voice night after night in a small bar in the Congolese capital. When her son is in a horrific accident, however, Félicité’s way of being is sent into chaos: in short order, she has to raise the cash to pay for his operation. This leads to a tense societal procedural on the level of the Dardennes’, combined with elements of a city symphony dedicated to the vibrancy of Kinshasa, as Gomis shoots the street life with a doc-style realism.
While this plight could have been the crux of Gomis’s film, instead it becomes the bridge to Félicité’s growth. After her son returns home with an amputated leg, Félicité begins, slowly, to accept the company (and help) of her neighbor, Tabu (Papi Mpaka). Prone to the drink and a mediocre mechanic at best, Tabu offers a gentle kindness and acceptance of Félicité as she is. It’s this fact that he never demands her life be re-ordered around him that makes their relationship so unique.
Given so many narratives around single women are constructed on a search for a man, that Félicité’s narrative takes this turn might cause some to pause. Yet, Gomis’s story is not based societal expectations and pressures around marriage (indeed, Félicité and Tabu’s relationship is far from “conventional”), but rather a deep humanist impulse: to be with others. It’s not, then, that Félicité’s sole quest is to find a man, but instead that in living her life she crosses paths with someone who she chooses to be with.
It’s this element of choice that adds such depth to Félicité’s form of strength. Yes, her life in Kinshasa is in some ways a Sisyphean struggle to survive, but the film doesn’t wallow in her dire circumstances and instead celebrates the agency and beauty that exists all around her. (Gomis uses the stunning score by the Kasai All Stars and Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste to emphasize this.) Time and again, Félicité has proven she has the strength to do it alone, but Tabu’s presence shows this isn’t the only way—and to accept this alternate way of being requires the strength to be vulnerable.
No scene better highlights this than when Tabu offers to fix her perpetually malfunctioning fridge. With great theatrics, Tabu reveals his handiwork to Félicité and her son, relishing in his glory—though it’s short lived. The motor soon sputters and dies, and Félicité can’t contain her laughter, which Tabu and her son soon join in, too. It’s here that Gomis poetically states that Félicité relationship with Tabu isn’t one based in gendered expectations of “having a man around.” Instead, their love lies in such moments of laughter that recognizes the other as a human who can offer far more than material aid; someone who can offer that immeasurable quality of joyful tenderness that comes when you open up to another. And there’s no weakness in accepting that.