Inscrutable in its rebellion against both traditionalism and modernism, Touki Bouki represents the prison of both ideologies through a haunting and illusive succession of images, revolutionary in its disparity of tone and willingness to provoke. Its defining symbol lies in the struggle of an ox to avoid the killing floor of a slaughterhouse, wrestling hopelessly against the ropes that bind its legs. As the startled beast falls to the ground, unable to find balance, a butcher opens the animal’s throat and blood sprays from the wound, forming a pool on the white tile beneath its quivering form. It’s an unforgettable, potentially unethical, vision, one that encapsulates the lives of the protagonists as they struggle beneath the knife of a repressive culture.
Squeezed between a claustrophobic mass of colorful shanties and a sea of hostile foot traffic, life in Dakar is too close for comfort for the restless Mory and Anta, a pair of young lovers out of step with the morality of their parents and philosophy of their peers. Blazing through town on a motorcycle adorned with an ox’s horns, Mory has “no class, no job, no shame,” earning his keep through elaborate cons and sporting the care-free demeanor and shaggy locks of an American “hippie.”
Standing in direct opposition to pre-assigned gender roles, Anta abandons a life of scrubbing linens and housekeeping to attend college, finding a new form of oppression at the hands of her horny classmates, whom she rebuffs at every given opportunity. In retaliation for her prudence, a gang of student activists tie up and assault Mory, dehorning his mechanical steed and desecrating his symbol of individual freedom and masculinity. Helpless to the attack, Mory is brutalized and strapped to their truck like a trophy kill, resembling a cow awaiting its turn at the abattoir.
Desperate to abandon Africa and bewitched by the soulful cadence of Josephine Baker (“Paris, Paris, Paris” is prominently featured), the pair set their sights on a romanticized version of Paris, paying their way by swindling a state-sponsored wrestling event and raiding the closet of a decadent, homosexual acquaintance. Swept up in delusions of grandeur and drunk on their pilfered riches, the prodigal couple fantasize about their return home after years abroad, deified by the locals for their haughty French mannerisms, signified in their daydreams by Mory’s boater hat and tailored suit and Anta’s en vogue cigarette holder.
Ironically, the qualities they admire most in the French (class, wealth, autonomy) are the means by which they are ostracized, resulting in an uncomfortable realization atop an ocean liner intended for Gay Paree. As the French patrons loudly discount the Senegalese people as intellectually barren, unrefined and unartistic, Mory has a pang of conscience and dashes back into the capital, searching for his abandoned motorcycle. Discovering the bike in the middle of the street, totaled beyond repair, the boy learns a harsh lesson about human isolation, one that will follow him no matter his location or destination.
Merging the emotional with the aesthetic, Touki Bouki is a shade more personal than Badou Boy, but no less interested in blurring the line between reality and fantasy, often at the expense of narrative clarity. Djibril Diop Mambéty prefers to abandon coherence in favor of formal maneuvering, carrying the storyline on the viscera of his imagery, a tactic that functions through the photographic contrast between poetic beauty and crushing brutality. These opposing aspects often contend for space in a single sequence, best exemplified through the feverish dicing of shots of Anta’s sylphlike contours with the bleeding out of a frightened goat.
Whatever symbolic mileage the film gains from unsimulated depictions of animal cruelty is up for debate, but it’s hard to excuse exploitation for the sake of dramatic impact. In this case, it severely limits an otherwise exceptional work, forcing the audience to reflect on the responsibility of the artist in lieu of the despondency of the story’s characters.
Touki Bouki (International Film Circuit, 1973)
Written and Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
Photographed by Georges Bracher