Faces of Women
Director: Désiré Ecaré. Cast: Albertine N'Guessan, Kouado Brou, Eugénie Cissé-Roland, Sidiki Bakaba, Désiré Bamba, Alexis Leatche, Mahilé Véronique. Screenplay: Désiré Ecaré.

One of the rare films from Africa to receive international release and attention, Désiré Ecaré's Faces of Women is a strange but rather entrancing picture that makes a virtue of its own frequent amateurishness. Two narrative threads are spun through Faces of Women. The first is a fairly standard love-triangle plot, as N'Guessan (Albertine N'Guessan), the wife of a portly and domineering man, seeks passion and respect from her husband's more bohemian, poetic brother Kouadssou, played by Kouado Brou. The second, far removed from the rural village atmosphere of the first sequence (and apparently filmed ten years later!) is an urban parable about a self-employed city woman named Madame Congas (the imposing Eugénie Cissé-Roland) who wants to upgrade her small fish market into a full-scale restaurant, but whose family members are a constant drain on her resources and increasingly prevent her from fulfilling her own ambitions.

Formally, Faces of Women is a little all over the place. The love triangle plot of the movie's first half is presented in interluding chapters between Ecaré's shots of a village celebration; the chorus of dancing, clapping, and singing women she tracks through the dusty summer streets seem to be telling the tale of N'Guessan and her lover as though it were ancestral lore, a ceremonial tale with accumulated cultural value or interest. Later, the framing device of the village disappears, and Ecaré provides a disorienting transition sequence involving karate lessons that hurtles us well into the second story before we realize the first narrative has concluded. Then, when the film ends, we get the dancers again!

The structure of all this is as precarious as the water basins that N'Guessan and her female comrades balance atop their heads, and a stronger sense of perspective would have made Faces of Women more accessible and the relationship between the stories more clear and contextualized. As it is, Ecaré seems to intend the vicissitudes of males—as primarily represented by the boorish, cuckolded husband in the first story and the lazy, saprophytic husband and sons in the second—as the mortar fusing the two halves of her film, but the feminist polemics are often coarsely didactic and frequently (particularly in the second episode) overlook the important ways in which other women are contributing to the female protagonist's unhappiness.

All the same, Faces of Women, which won Ecaré the International Critics' Prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, demonstrates considerable verve in its full-blooded portriats of both N'Guessan and Madame Congas and does characterize each woman in a way that enriches and complicates her relevance to her era. N'Guessan, the village wife, is unmistakably "modern" in her deliberate pursuit of sexual and personal gratification, not to mention her frank dressings-down of her husband, while Madame Congas, ostensibly the sophisticated "city mouse" in American idiom, has a primitive understanding of commerce, as well as the timeless dilemma of imprisonment within a family who require her so exactingly as a mother and wife as to leave no room for her entrepreneuring spirit to emerge. The two most stunning sequences in the picture, N'Guessan's sexual liaison with Kouadssou in a tree-shaded elbow of the river and Madame Congas' tearful, angry cataloguing of her sufferings to her family, cut to the heart of each of these paradoxes: the farm wife with the urban mentality, and the modern, seemingly self-reliant woman nonetheless burdened by her family's demands.

One can also not underestimate the sheer value of the rare insight Faces of Women affords Western viewers to savor the stories, the textures, and the sounds of the Ivory Coast; its resulting, utter difference from almost any other film to reach American audiences during its time may have given it an aura of Importance that made the picture itself seem better than it was. Still, Faces of Women is always intriguing and frequently entertaining, and begins to hint at the contributions African artists could make to the development of film and other crafts all over the world if their own products were more widely circulated and embraced. Grade: B

Cannes Film Festival: FIPRESCI Prize

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