Winner of the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes, Désiré Ecaré’s Faces of Women, from Ivory Coast, shows a society in transition. In particular, its focus is the status of women as this evolves from patriarchal oppression—the residue, ironically, of both tribal organization and colonialist imposition—to newer demands by women for social and political equality. We follow in particular two women, each from a different generation, as they grope—one more feelingly, the other more thoughtfully—towards a new consciousness identifying their minds and their bodies as completely their own. The past that opposes them, we discover, is stubborn, deeply entrenched.
Analytical and dynamic rather than sentimental or posturing, employing eloquently its hand-held camera, Faces of Women, although fictional, has the immediacy of eyewitness documentary. It consists of two overlapping parts, each comprising chronological episodes relating to one of the two women. This structure, though, in no way feels fissured; the film’s formal unity derives from two things: the contemporary struggle of Ivory Coast women, which is the theme both parts share, and the occasion of a street festival providing linking choral commentary. The whole—a model of clarity—works beautifully.
It is with the festival that the film begins. We see, first, men walking; then, women dancing by themselves. Odd. Does this gender segregation imply gender disharmony? When dance couples finally appear, either they are so formally preoccupied that they evidence no pleasure or, worse, only one of the dance partners is smiling—here, the male; there, the female. What we see next declares that it is the males, though, who have the upper hand. We see boys dancing by themselves; mere children, already they strut in their “superior” maledom. Theirs is a society that grooms them to take the lead.
This concise thematic exposition would not work in a documentary because, there, it would be falsifying the reason why most people, including Ivory Coast villagers, dance: for the pleasure of it. However, here, the careful use of selection and juxtaposition contextualizes the two “tales” to follow. (Each, really, is a collection of episodes.) The first focuses on a young woman who, weary of being dictated to by her spouse, flirts with his younger brother, who becomes her lover. (Surely, here, Ecaré hasn’t forgotten Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964).) The second focuses on a more mature woman. A business owner and the family breadwinner, she is fed up with subordinating herself to the “superior” role that tradition confers on her spouse.
The first “tale” opens with Brou hard at work in the fields where Kouassi, his educated, nattily dressed younger brother, looks on. Brou asks, before sending Kouassi back to the village, “Why can’t you be like the rest of us?” It isn’t long before Brou is suspicious every moment that his spouse, N’guessan, and Kouassi are out of his sight. (Ironically, in one passage where Brou besieges N’guessan with his suspiciousness, her keeping at her daily heavy allotment of labor casts back on her spouse the charge of idleness he had cast on his brother.) In the meantime, an insert predicts the possible future of Brou and N’guessan’s marriage; beating her, a man drags his wife along the ground.
The atmosphere isn’t invested with paranoia. Brou has good cause to worry about N’guessan, for the distance that has grown between them gives his eager brother a margin of opportunity. In a stunning sequence, Brou sits outdoors, his head full of village gossip. The camera doesn’t budge. Silently about her business of putting together a mealtime table for the three of them, N’guessan several times walks out of and back into the frame. Brou is cold, hostile, suspicious. About to implode is the form of a marriage bereft of its tender substance; husband and wife are sharing nothing that we can see. “You are my slave, I am your master,” Brou later yells after N’guessan has returned from a family visit; “I own your body.” Here, then, is the fallback position of a man terribly fearful of losing not just his wife but what she represents: within his household, his dominant status; outside, the respect of the community this household is a part of. Thanks to gossip, Brou already is poised to become a figure of ridicule; that his wife and brother seem to be disdaining him places his authority on further shifting ground. In effect, he already has lost his wife—at least the unquestioning, subservient kind of wife he feels entitled to. For, instead of buckling under Brou’s angry claim of ownership, and “contaminated” second-hand by her brother-in-law’s exposure at school to newfangled notions of egalitarianism and liberty, N’guessan responds to Brou with mocking insolence.
The chorus, all women, is blunt: “Men never trust us. And there are so many honest women. . . . [Men] see the worst in everything. . . [Brou] deserves only to be deceived.” Thus the chorus compounds N’guessan’s insolence. In terms of the film’s political aim, however, it achieves more than this. For, by compounding N’guessan’s voice with its several likeminded voices, the chorus implies the political strength in numbers it may take to remove a patriarchal structure and cultural foundation that allow a man to think he can own a woman—or at least say so, however little he may actually mean it. (Conviction has never been a prerequisite for oppression.)
These choral voices overlap into the next scene where the adultery is finally consummated—within the context the chorus has provided, something of a political act. With the spirits of Renoir, father and son, hovering about, the scene is earthily gorgeous. (François Migeat and Dominique Gentil are the color cinematographers.) At the river, while Kouassi secretly watches, N’guessan fills a basin but then, indulging the pleasure of a free, (she thinks) private moment, sets aside her domestic chore to undress and bathe in the river. (The implication is that she steals these private bathing moments of pleasure whenever she can.) Kouassi joins her, and the two seamlessly and variously couple, making love amidst tranquil surroundings—Nature as antidote to convention and oppression. Afterwards, like children they frolic on land. At one point N’guessan delightedly points to Kouassi’s and her own genitals, thus declaring, wordlessly, their equality.
Referring to Brou, the chorus asks, “Will that teach him?” But, of course, the question is no less pertinent to Kouassi, for gender equality in theory, as a schoolroom precept, is one thing, and in living, breathing practice quite another.
Brou doesn’t learn a thing, however. Cuckolded, he disguises himself as his brother—the form of love, like the form of marriage, is all he has to hold onto—and traps his wife in the tryst. Then, recreating the film’s earlier image, Brou beats N’guessan while dragging her home. At the last we see her enrolled in a martial arts class; how problematic the usefulness of this self-defense training will prove is underscored by a remarkable image of patriarchal weight: after N’guessan practices on him a few of the karate “moves” she has learned, Brou, a hefty man, pins his wife by sitting on her. This ridiculous crush is all the more disheartening following a celebratory street gathering of women only, their optimism and confidence almost palpable.
From within the family, then, N’guessan will have no luck gaining freedom or any recognition that she is her spouse’s equal. Overlapping this aborted rebirth of hers, though, is the second “tale,” which suggests another path to follow. It is capitalism—specifically, the status conferred on those who succeed in the marketplace. Such success is in fact gender-neutral; theoretically, though, women may convert it into political gain. It is a notion capital usually quotes in its defense for all the exploitation of people its workaday operations require. In the long run, the rationalization goes, people’s lives will be bettered. Here, the woman—I did not find her name in the subtitles—is as off-base as N’guessan was in the first “tale.” Given the paternalistic linkage of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism, she is naive to think she can contest patriarchy, from outside the family, through market success. Thus her “tale” turns out, if not disastrously like N’guessan’s, problematically—an indication above all of the rough road to hoe, where capitalism may not be the best hoe. The film ends with an unresolved conflict between the woman’s aspirations and her husband’s husbandly prerogatives seeking to hold her in the family’s reactionary fold.
This second “tale” opens with women, among them the lead character, reacting to Brou’s manhandling of N’guessan. Some of their comments follow: “Men think they’re cleverer because they’re stronger . . . They hold us down with their strength . . . We will never get peace until we become as strong as they are.” Surely they need political strength, which uniting their numbers might effect. But by learning karate—part of the two-“tale” overlap is that she and N’guessan are enrolled in the same class—one of the women pursues physical strength, while another, the protagonist, pursues economic strength, and each remains solitary in her pursuit. Doubtless Ecaré sees this as a missed diagnosis, a missed opportunity; for by the failures of the women in both “tales” the film implies a more likely path to success: women coming together as a single voice of protest—in effect, the politicization of the chorus.
The lead character is indeed an economic “success.” With her current fish-smoking operation employing 200 women, she supports herself, her spouse, her daughters, and a ne’er-do-well younger brother. For all this, her spouse hasn’t modified by a jot the position of authority he holds within the family (“Marriage is hard,” the woman tells her daughter, who is home from college)—and, regardless, it remains his position to modify, given the patriarchic power structure that each family organization reproduces in miniature. That’s not all. Despite the fact that she puts food on the table and keeps a roof over their head, the woman’s family remains largely unappreciative. Too quickly, moreover, they gobble up the money she makes. Misguidedly, she hopes by making yet more money she will find both family respect and community status naturally accruing to her. Certainly the new business she eyes would enhance her public visibility and thus, presumably, strengthen the hand with which she hopes to restructure the family hierarchy. Like Mildred Pierce, she wants to open a restaurant.
Her logic is unassailable. Too bad that the banking system she must approach for the loan needed to begin her new venture hews to its own patriarchic logic. The bank officer with whom she meets politely insists on financial “guarantees” that her assets can’t provide—one of capitalism’s catch-22s for maintaining the status quo. This meeting of theirs is the most penetrating passage of Ecaré’s film. In it, the woman finds herself facing a kid—an educated banker young enough to be her own son; therefore, when he is reluctant to accommodate her, she reconstitutes her approach by framing her loan plea in the applicable familial terms (for this kid surely loves Mom, right?)—as I interpret it, a frantic search inside the family configuration (which she finds herself forced to fall back on) for a means of in fact exiting and reforming it. How wide is her humiliation, then, when the strategy fails and (in her mind) this surrogate son denies her request.
Brilliantly, the film has come full-circle. For only a short while ago this loan officer would have been one of those strutting boys at the festival. Nicely filling the suit of his job, he embodies now the transgenerational entrenchment of patriarchy. Despite his youth, he is also a stand-in for the woman’s spouse who dismisses his wife’s ambitiousness by telling her she has “too many plans.” All these males are the woman’s political glass ceiling. Complacent in his authority (the way people get when they are so used to having it they presume this is part of the natural order of things), a veritable brick wall to his wife, the woman’s spouse, like Brou, shows patriarchal form taking precedence over what should be the tender, egalitarian substance of marriage.
Ecaré’s marvelous comedy powerfully concludes with women again dancing by themselves. The message is clear: They have only themselves to rely on. The unexpected slow motion applied to this finale does double expressive duty; not only suggesting the prolonged struggle these women have ahead of them but also deepening our sense of patriarchy’s determination to resist all challenges. How salutary it is to encounter the technique of slow motion—generally used for mere effect, to sentimentalize a scene or to make it more “lyrical”—here used instead analytically, to sharpen the film’s two complementary themes.
Certainly Faces of Women is a great study of the contest between an African past that won’t let go and an African future that, one way or another, must pry open this grip.
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