Book Review: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

philofwalkA bestseller in France since its publication in 2009, Frédéric Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking has recently been released as an English translation by Verso, billed as an “insightful manifesto” on walking. The book charts Gros’ reflections on walking, but also considers walking as a practice in the lives of great thinkers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau and Rimbaud. Following on the coat tails of the recent renaissance in walking as a critical and literary subject, it steps into the growing “genre” of literary walking, represented by the writings of Rebecca Solnit, Merlin Coverley, Robert Macfarlane, W.G. Sebald, which have been very well received by readers over the past few decades.

Publishers know the popularity of this type of writing, but the reasons behind this genre as a cultural phenomenon have been given very little serious consideration. It is perhaps to give credence to a critical examination of walking as a literary trope, and philosophic mode, that I turned to Gros’ book, hoping to find in it both the rambling poetics of W.G. Sebald, but also an analytical framework which would illuminate why discussing the act of walking is important. But, while titled “a philosophy”, I found the book more a dawdle than a march. Its prose limp and saccharine, often repetitive, and overall a waste of time. This might sound overly harsh, but the tautological style of this book often makes it exasperating to read. To give a good example, Gros writes,

 The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life. So we are a moving two-legged beast, just a pure force among big trees, just a cry…

Need I continue? This may be a harsh perspective, from my cynical British eyes. Possibly in French the book has that lackadaisical aimlessness, so loved in the Proustian form of French novel and in French cinema. Perhaps even, the book is merely the victim of a rough and badly considered translation? At one point, the translator Richard Howe, makes Epicitetus proclaim that the “ground is my couch”, in a truly banal Americanisation of the stoic philosopher. But, even if we consider this translation as accurate, the book is pallid to the extent of parody. It feels more a weak vehicle for biographical detail, than rich philosophical curiosity. The selection of writers which Gros has chosen to focus on is evidently French; with Rousseau, and Rimbaud, heavily dwelling on the French literary canon. But also Nietzsche and Kant equally part of that European male oeuvre. Even with his description of Thoreau, there is a distinctly European reading of this thinking and relationship to nature in Waldon.

The book draws on considerable documentary evidence for the walking practice of these historic figures. However, at times there is desperation in the way Gros picks up on every detail of how and when these writers walked. The weakness of this biographical detail is especially conspicuous with the focus on Kant, whom even Gros agrees only took a brief daily walk, moved very slowly and desperately hated to perspire. From all accounts Kant should not really be considered a serious walker but Gros places him alongside the wild and indomitable Nietzsche, who went mad with exhaustion from his walking, and Rimbaud, whose prolific walks and writings on walking, are of course legendary. Indeed, I found that despite the obvious differences of all these writers, reading the book and viewing these thinkers from this same perspective of walking, forced them into similitude, often merging into one globulous entity of “walker”, which was both repetitive and monotonous. In Gros’ hands there is a methodic attention to their lives, their backgrounds, and the accounts of their walks, without very much consideration of what this actually means to our understanding of their work or even to the importance of these walks.

What Gros’ book very much picks up on is the passive, reflective mode of walking. Walking as a non-competitive act, which puts one foot in front of the other. An act which both internalises one’s thoughts, but also, for the writer, breaks them from the introversion of the internal world, to observe the wider world and their small place within it. But so much of this has already been said before, often by the very writers he cites. Nietzsche proclaimed that we do not belong to those who have ideas only among books […] it is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the seas where even the trails become thoughtful”. Perhaps this book would have been better if he had just published a selection of quotations from these very writers on the spirit of walking which he is trying to mine?

No doubt, in the great liberation exalted by the beat generation of Ginsberg and Burroughs, in that debauch of energy that was meant to tear up our lives and blow sky-high the dens of the submissive, walking in the mountains was just one means amongst others: others that included the drugs, the booze and the orgies through which we hoped to attain innocence.

What I found particularly guiling, (with full transparency as woman and a feminist), was the lack of women even considered in this discussion. That is, disregarding his small paragraph on the “sweetie-pie”,”working-class good time girls” who strolled the Tuileries Gardens in Paris during the Belle Epoque. While Gros makes a surreptitious nod towards William Wordsworth, where are the women included in this, like his sister Dorothy, Virginia Woolf or even Doris Lessing? In this criticism is an implicit frustration with the lack of ingenuity and contemporaneity to this account of walking. Writers like Nietzsche, Rimbaud and Thoreau have been scrapped over endlessly. Others to, like John Clare, Charles Dickens and James Joyce too have had a lot of attention, but perhaps were not popular enough with his original French audience. But what about more recent entrants to this history like the traveller Patrick Leigh Fermour, or Guy Debord, even the “London” tradition of psychogeography with Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair and Will Self? What of Werner Herzog, who famous suggested to  Bruce Chatwin that “walking is virtue, tourism deadly sin”. What about more recent adventurers and escapists, like Jon Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless. What if one broadened the genre and also concentrated on walking in the practice of visual art, in the work of Richard Long for example, or further into film, with Agnes Varda’s wonderful Vagabond?

Perhaps then, the problem here is that to broaden out this “philosophical” perspective on walking, to include wider genres of contemporary examples, would make this book far too diffused and diffuse. It is only when looking back at these key, sparse accounts of walking as a philosophical practice, that any clear conclusions on “a philosophy” of walking can be drawn. But these are conclusions which don’t resonate with contemporary life. The problem with this book, as with the genre of walking as a whole, is the generality of walking. While used in literature as a sublime expression of escape, of simplicity, and as a response to Modernity; walking is also in itself something so mundane and everyday. Indeed,  to a “general public”, these books are often (rightly) derided for effectively teaching a grandmother to suck eggs. They seek to elevate these activities which were often simple to something much more complex and intentional. While Gros rallies around the importance of walking as an escape for the writers from the narrowing internalisations of reading, one should perhaps question his motives in communicating this message through the medium of the book. You feel Nietzsche would not have sat down long enough to read it. Instead, Gros should perhaps have merely written: “Get up from you chair. Go. Do not read the next 216 pages. Go outside and experience your world by walking for yourself.”  But that would perhaps leave him, and his publisher, unemployed.

Book Review: The View from the Train by Patrick Keiller

Railway Fence by Walter Steggles, c.1930

Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) has haunted and intrigued me since I first saw it nearly five years ago. The film, a blend of documentary and fiction, presents a year in London as seen through the eyes of an imaginary protagonist, Robinson, whose thoughts and insights are related by an unnamed narrator. Keiller, through Robinson, seeks to examine London, suggesting that it “no longer exists” – that it is the “first metropolis to disappear”. This heightened awareness of absence is central to Keiller’s relationship with the urban landscape of London, as well as the critical impetus behind much of his filmmaking. It is still there, at the heart of his latest book, The View from the Train, a collection of essays published by Verso that charts Keiller’s writing from the start of his career in the late 1970s to the present day. Although his more recent films, Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010), have moved away from London, this collection of essays is clearly devoted to the landscape of the city in which he has been immersed for the best part of forty years.

In his introduction, Keiller sets out the influence that surrealism has had on his interpretation of London, in particular the exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at the Hayward Gallery in 1978. Surrealism, since the work of André Breton, has been symbolically embedded in the landscape of Paris, but Keiller saw how easily it could be applied to London, by imagining the capital as what Roger Cardinal termed the “soluble city”. This notion of the “soluble city”, in a constant state of flux and revision, is present in much writing about London, such as Jonathan Raban’s semi-fictional Soft City (1974), and greatly influenced Keiller’s filmmaking. At a recent talk about his work around Battersea and Nine Elms at the Open University, he returned to this idea, suggesting that, while continually changing, in some ways London hasn’t really changed at all. In his early work, Keiller documented the architectural changes of the 70s and the rapid cycle of ‘new’ architectures in the era of late capitalism. His work has often recapitulated the city as having an organic – rather than controlled or wholly planned – evolution. It is clear in this career-spanning collection, possibly with the virtue of hindsight, that Keiller considers continuous change to be in some way the status quo. He does not mourn for a lost London, but takes pleasure in re-appropriating what has been overlooked.


In one essay in this collection, Popular Science, Keiller quotes Guillaume Apollinaire’s description of the London suburbs from the train as “wounds bleeding in the fog”. Apollinaire stayed in London in 1904 and 1905 and saw the city’s rapid suburban expansion as a flight from the wounds at the city’s heart. Apollinaire’s beautiful phrase seems not just to encompass the suburban ideal that transformed the landscape around London at the turn of the twentieth century, but also to foreshadow the increasingly dystopian London of the 1970s that Keiller came to as a student; a city traumatised by the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block and troubled by the decline of the post-war modernist dream. In his essay Dilapidated Dwellings, which accompanied his television documentary of the same name for Channel 4 (2000), Keiller looks at the legacy of this period by juxtaposing what he calls ‘new’ space – corporate, short-lived – and ‘old’ space – residential, degraded.

In many ways, Keiller’s perspective represents a particularly British mentality; his vision of London embodies a conundrum of town-planning that dates back to the reconstruction of the city after the Great Fire of 1666. Unlike Paris – with vast swathes of its centre straightened out by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century – London remains a hodgepodge of architectural narratives. Keiller uses the term ‘palimpsest’ in one of his early essays, characterising the city as being continuously rewritten, its land and architectures reused and adapted, rather than as a modernist tabula rasa. Whereas Apollinaire’s view of a bleeding London characterises a city at the turn of the twentieth century, Keiller’s appreciation of Apollinaire typifies a longer view of ebb and flow in the old and the new.

In his essay Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome: Whose London? (1999), the art writer Adrian Rifkin describes London’s streets as having a “linguistic” structure. Keiller plays with this idea in his own essay Imagining. Like Rifkin, Keiller considers his own history as a London commuter, as well as a wanderer, in a quintessentially psychogeographical manner, although Keiller treats this term with scepticism, lamenting its recent apolitical reincarnation at the hands of certain London writers. And yet, Keiller’s films are clearly part of this re-emergence of psychogeography in London – what Keiller calls “the current tendency”. Will Self has alluded to this in his own review of The View from the Train, in the London Review of Books, saying that the “unplanned perambulations” that make up Robinson’s cinematic narrative, and indeed Keiller’s praxis as a filmmaker, are, as Robinson puts it, “seemingly intent […] on bringing about the collapse of what used to be called neoliberalism”, and are therefore highly political. As Keiller states in the earliest essay published in this collection, The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape:

The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a numbers of ways of fulfilling it. One of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of the mood, which alters experience of the world and so transforms it.

Despite Keiller’s misgivings about psychogeography (particularly what he sees as its role in gentrification, which he describes as a form of colonialism) his vision and practice align with many of the post-Thatcher, London-based psychogeographers of the 1990s, such as Will Self. In fact, the popularity of his films, and the reason for this collection, lies in his very singular ability to consider and alter one’s experience of urban and rural landscapes in a way that many would associate with psychogeography.

Bow Bridge by Walter Steggles, c.1930
Bow Bridge by Walter Steggles, c.1930

This collection is a mixed bag, but it does have a fragmented charm. A recurring motif in many of his later essays, evoked by the title, The View from the Train, and giving a loose sense of a theme, is the parallel development of cinema and technology, and the coinciding decline of the cinematic panorama with the growth of the railway. In both Film as a Spatial Critique and Phantom Rides: The Railway & Early Film, Keiller returns again and again to Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that the “space of common sense, of knowledge, of social practice” and everyday discourse was “shattered” in around 1910. Evoking Walter Benjamin’s formative essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Keiller looks at the changing dynamic of cinematic narrative, from the early ‘cinema of attractions’ – in which a camera was mounted on the front of a train to create a continuous, single-frame, moving narrative – to the fragmented montage of space and time in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). He suggests that the train had an important role in early cinema, both as a subject and as a parallel technology that eroded this idea of a shared space, and the boundaries between geographical and mental space.

Like the railway itself, this collection has an intrinsic, almost perverse linearity to it, moving through Keiller’s thinking and work over forty years and charting his changing voice from failed architect to successful filmmaker and academic. It can be repetitious in a way that is alternately illuminating and frustrating, but for fans of Keiller it brings an important critical dimension to the reading of his films and his thinking over the past forty years. In the essay Architectural Cinematography, Keiller does give some details of his filmmaking process, but this is all too short and there is not much said about the making of his later films or his exhibition at Tate Britain in 2010. That said, such omissions do not make The View from the Train anything less than invaluable reading, especially as Keiller’s essays are a singular companion to his films, considering the problems of his work without forcing the reader to reach firm conclusions. In that very postmodern way, they pose questions and reflect on his work without resolution. Keiller may pick holes in his own impact, but this collection solidifies his place in contemporary cinema and highlights the importance of criticality and politics in filmmaking. Here, as in his films, Keiller more than fulfils his own brief, as laid out in the first essay in the collection, “to alter the experience of the world and so transform it”.

The paintings that accompany this piece, by Walter Steggles of the East London Group, feature in From Bow to Bienalle, at the Nunnery May 9th – July 13th 2014.

The View from the Train is available now.


London Through The Lens: The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963)


When describing his influences for the film Get Carter (1971), the acclaimed director Mike Hodges cited two films which had supremely fuelled his gritty portrayal of cockney criminality; the first being Brighton Rock (1947) the film derived from Graham Greene’s book of criminality centring on the young psychopathic ‘Pinkie’; and the second, much less well known, is The Small World of Sammy Lee, directed by Ken Hughes (1963). These three films sit in a perfect triad, oozing the ambiguous romanticism of the London gangster at this time. Each focuses on its central male protagonist, both carried along and carrying this criminal world, complexly woven as both hero and villain. While Get Carter and Brighton Rock have easily passed into the pantheon of British film classics, The Small World of Sammy Lee has passed into relative obscurity. The film recently came to my attention with a series of screenings about East London being shown at the St Johns Church on Cambridge Heath Road, this particular film screened in all its glory above the alter with a short introduction by that prophet of East London, Iain Sinclair.

Hodges was so impressed by Hughes film that he employed the cameraman, Wolfgang Suschitsky, a figure previously associated with documentary film in the late 1950s and whose long tracking shots for the streets of London are the bedrock of the visual transience the film projects. The film follows Sammy Lee (played by Anthony Newley), a Jewish compare of a Soho strip club, as he dashes about the city attempting to collect enough money to pay the East End gang lord he owes following a bad night’s poker. One can see why Suschitsky was such a key figure in this film, as he came to be in Get Carter. The cinematography expresses this intense frenetic energy of Newley as he chases they money around London. His hunched pacing cunning ingenuity takes him across the East End, to his brother’s small Jewish corner shop, to the range of wheelers and dealers he can shaft or out-talk in a bid to escape his imminent predicament. It is a frantic, anxious movement which brings with it a sense of pathos for this shady character, and a melancholy at his ultimate doom. It is a frenzy also apparent in Get Carter, which famously also uses music to build suspense on long travelling shots. Suschitsky captures this all, expressing this tension not only with the character of Sammy, but as a characteristic of London itself. Really, while the story forms the structure of his journey, this is a film about London. As a friend who lived in London at that time said to me afterward the screening – I know you’re looking at this as a piece of visual history, but for me this takes me back to London as it was for me in the 60s. The shops, the clubs, the smoke filled cellars and derelict ruins, used to great effect in the final scene which is filmed in true film noir blackness. London is on view in all its multiplicity and visual vitality.

At the centre of it is Newley, well known for his early role as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948), but also known to me as the strange ‘Irish’ fellow in Rex Harrison’s Doctor Dolittle (1967), and also from a successful songwriting career. Newley plays Lee with such a mix of comedy and anxiety that the film has this peculiar humour and melancholy which pervades Sammy Lee’s attempts to escape the inevitable. Alongside him, Julia Foster – bizarrely, the mother of the ever-present TV figure Ben Fogle – plays the guileless Patsy, Lee’s young love who has escaped her parents in Bradford with the hopes of a future with Sammy, only herself being drawn into his seedy world and eventually reduced to stripping for his clients. Foster plays the role as a perfect counter to the rough and wiley Newley, bringing a sense of pathos to his situation and motivation for his hopeful relief. As she says, he’s only really a boy, a young man in the city trying to make his way. Their relationship almost mirrors the relationship between ‘Pinkie’ and Rose in Brighton Rock, though in a slightly less monstrous guise, where Patsy’s innocence neutralizes the hard-dealing, undercutting desperation of Sammy as he resorts to anything to scramble out of his fix. Their parting has echoes of another film of the same year, Billy Liar (1963), directed by John Schlesinger, but performed as a play in the West End as early as 1960; in which the female character (played by Julie Christie) travels from Bradford to London in search of fame and fortune. Except in this case the scene is reversed as Patsy is shipped back to her parents in Bradford leaving Sammy to face his loan sharks head on.

While reduced to relative obscurity now, The Small World of Sammy Lee deserves a revival. It’s portrayal of London and London life brings with it an incredible view of the ins-and-outs of the city. Too often this period is dealt with only as the city of glitz and glamour, or as romanticized criminal underworld. Here is a more grey vision of the swinging 60s, which like Sammy Lee is tinted with a superficial charm but driven by murky underbelly. The two worlds revolving around each other. The film has a humour and warmth to it, but as Sammy’s final comic compare introduction to the slimy clients of his club shows, there is a hollowness and hardness behind this veneer of comedy which displays a stark reality. As he says, behind their smiles and guiles these women hate their customers. The act is all a façade. At the end of the film, in a dark quarry of rubble at the edge of the city, the façade is stripped and this film reveals itself in all its darkness and gritty realism.

Untold Stories: Hymn and Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett at the Duchess Theatre

Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett). Photo by Jayne West.
Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett). Photo by Jayne West.

Despite being fictive, there is a raw, melancholic reality in Bennett’s plays which is immediately evocative of a kind of nostalgic Britishness, his words staying with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

Hymn, the more original of the two pieces, Bennett recalls his father’s interest in music and his own reflections on music that have stayed with him throughout his life. This monologue is set alongside a quartet on the stage that marvelously play off Bennett’s own musings. With a much larger cast, Cocktail Sticks focuses on Bennett’s parents, particularly his mother’s notions of respectability and the eponymous 1970s cocktail party.

Hymn at the National last year, a friend of mine actually thought that it was the real Alan Bennett on stage. He also brings such an intimacy to both plays, which makes this smaller theatre the perfect venue – I would say even more so than a larger stage at the National. 

 History Boys. Indeed Hector’s immortal lines “famished for antiquity”, are evoked in Cocktail Sticks, perfectly summing up Bennett’s own humoured dissatisfaction with childhood. And just like his childhood reminiscences in the long-running Telling Tales (which I listened to on cassette tapes on long car journeys throughout my own childhood), there is something so special in having Bennett’s world brought to life, acted out on the stage. 

Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories is on at the Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden, until June 2013.



Feature Film: Madame de…

Vittorio de Sica and Danielle Darrieux in Ophuls' Madame de... Image: British Film Institute
Vittorio de Sica and Danielle Darrieux in Max Ophuls’ Madame de..  (Image: British Film Institute)

A much-underrated director and supreme stylist, Max Ophuls is having a renaissance with a series at the British Film Institute this February that should not be missed. His films, spanning the 1930s to the mid-50s, are beautiful models of melodrama, with femme fatales, longing lovers and doomed romances. Ophuls began his career in German theatre and radio, later making films across Europe before emigrating to America during the war. As a Jewish exile in Hollywood, he carved out a name for himself with films like Letter from and Unknown Woman (starring Joan Fontaine) and The Reckless Moment (with James Mason). But the films that he made in France following the end of the Second World War are what best represent his remarkable talent: the tragic Lola Montes, Le Plaisir, La Ronde and, the jewel in his crown, Madame de… (1953).

Featuring the beautiful actress, Danielle Darrieux, Madame de… is the story of a passionate romance in belle époque Paris between the married Louise (the eponymous Madame De) and an Italian diplomat, Donati (played by the famous director of Italian neo-realism, Vittorio de Sica). This is a tale of tragic melodrama, adapted from a novel by the infamous Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin, and is a highly autobiographical reflection of her illustrious life. The married woman who falls for the dashing womaniser may be a common conceit, but the magic of Ophuls’ storytelling transports an otherwise familiar narrative into new territory. Visually sumptuous, the filmmaker’s notoriously long tracking shots draw you into the story, playing visual tricks with mirrors and swirling montages. The luscious sets, twinkling lights and glamorous costumes provide a perfect piece of escapism, as they would have done for audiences of post-war Europe.

Danielle Darrieux as Louise, “adept at making you die of hope”. Image: British Film Institute
Danielle Darrieux as Louise, “adept at making you die of hope”. Image: British Film Institute

The central motif of the film is a pair of diamond earrings that Louise sells to pay off her gambling debts in the opening sequence. Initially given to her by her husband when they first married, they are repeatedly bought and sold, and eventually given to Louise again, in a moment of intense irony, by her lover Donati. The earrings come to represent love as a process of exchange; they are both love and affection, but also symbolic of the inevitable downfall of desire. In Madame de…, Ophuls plays with the classic figure of the femme fatale — the seductress whose charms ensnare her lovers in the bonds of irresistible desire. She is described by her husband as a “flirt” and “adept at making you die of hope”. The tragic irony in this scene becomes apparent later in the film when Donati mirrors the husband’s words, telling Louise how he has learned to hope. And yet, while his leading women often ensnare men with their charms, Ophuls presents them as victims of love as much as men, rather than perpetrators of destruction. In many of his films the female protagonists struggle against their desire and seek to escape it. Indeed, in Madame de... Louise departs after realising her love for Donati, allowing a beautiful sequence of Danielle Darrieux on the beach looking out at the sea, later tearing up her unsent letters and sending them out in the wind where they transform into snow. In Madame de…, it could be said, the femme fatale is not Louise but the diamond earrings; they are the central objects of desire, fatalistic in their superficial charm, and which are at the end crystallised as relics to lost romance.

There is something eternal about the romantic images conjured by Ophuls. The soft-focus close-ups and lingering looks behind doors are characteristic of this early 1950s period of cinema. Having worked as a director in Hollywood for a number of years, Ophuls knew how to make a beautiful and glamorous film. Yet, from his background in the German theatre of the 1920s, Ophuls is at heart a modernist. There is far more substance to his films than the commercial melodramas that were pouring out of America at this time. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in To the Lighthouse:

Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron.

While we may revel in their evanescent visions of decadence, underneath the bright lights Ophuls’ films are far more complex and intriguing. As the husband André describes his relationship to Louise in Madame de…: “We are only superficially superficial.” Beneath the veneer of the frivolous fin-de-siecle world, some more pressing social critique is bubbling. In its visual complexity and ironic humour, this is a film that invites you to enjoy a piece of commercial escapism, while simultaneously prompting you, with its artful gaze, to question your passive consumption of twinkling spectacle.

In the current climate, when the doom and gloom of recession and the depths of wet and windy weather are hitting us from all angles, Max Ophuls’ films inhabit a particularly precious place. As romantic escapism, they beguile us with their cathartic tragedy — their style and social context revealing hidden depths that linger on you like a musky perfume. Films like Madame de.. are perhaps as important today as they were in post-war Europe. This is a superb film by a supreme auteur; it should be watched and cherished.

Madame de… is showing at the British Film Institute from 15–23 February with a special introduction from the film critic Professor Laura Mulvey on the 21st. For more information, visit the BFI website.

Feature Film: Madame Brouette

Madame Brouette (2002)
Madame Brouette (2002)

In 2009, the film critic Danny Leigh wrote a fantastic piece in the Guardian film blog on the lack of African films enjoyed in British cinemas. It doesn’t seem that much has changed since then. Outside a few niche audiences, films from the African continent have largely been ignored by mainstream UK audiences—unless we count Meryl Streep (and that bizarre Danish accent) in Out of Africa. So when I had the opportunity, I enthusiastically scooted off to the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, which often has free screenings of African films, to watch a contemporary classic of Senegalese cinema, Madame Brouette. Away from the bustling crowds of shoppers in Covent Garden, I found myself transported from the cold, wet streets of London to the vivid, dusty shantytowns of Western Africa.

Madame Brouette (2002), by Moussa Sene Absa, is a beautiful and searing comic drama set in the city of Dakar, Senegal. Opening on a scene of carnival celebration, the camera centres on the film’s female characters as they enter an urban square dressed in elaborate yellow costumes, led by the tall and gracious figure of Mati, known as Madame Brouette. While men sit around the periphery, the music starts up and the women begin their wild communal dance in a joyful frenzy of yellow as the titles roll.

It is an opening sequence  which  introduces many of the themes which run throughout this film. Speaking on his films generally, Absa has said, “I am not trying to amuse people; I am trying to transform them . . . the role of the artist in society is to provoke.” With sometimes comic and surreal moments, it deals with weighty themes of love, oppression, corruption, freedom, money and death with a lyrical melodrama which feels in league with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996).  While illuminating a very contemporary society, the film has the essence of a Greek tragedy. A chorus appears at certain points, which brings musical punctuation to the drama and a running commentary to the unfolding action.

At its heart this film is about the strength and solidarity of women. Without being dry or overtly didactic, the film addresses the role of women in modern Senegalese society and the perpetual recurrence of these struggles in the country’s history. At the centre of the story is the beguiling heroine Mati, who supports herself and her daughter Ndèye by selling goods from her wheelbarrow around the streets of the city. Equally beautiful and independent, she is marked out from the world around her by her looks and opinions, announcing that she has given up on men and the traditional confines of marriage in search of freedom. Her public name, “Madame Brouette” (Mrs Wheelbarrow), presents her not as a wife but as entrepreneur. Early in the film she encourages her friend Ndaxté to leave her abusive husband with the dream of co-owning a canteen and making a better life.

The friendship of Ndaxté and Mati is incredibly vivid and a constitutive element of the film’s narrative. But the independence of these women is seen almost as an act of hubris, which outside factors seek to corrupt. Apart from being a poignant symbol of her hard work and strength, Mati’s colourful wheelbarrow comes to be the source of her vulnerability as a woman. Despite swearing off men, she meets and falls in love with a local policeman, Naago, whom she distrusts but cannot resist. Naago is as charming as he is corrupt, seen to be in the pocket of local crooks and pimps. He quickly gets Mati pregnant and then leaves her stranded. With little help from others Mati and Ndaxté work to fulfil their dreams and eventually set up their canteen, but even as she seeks to live independently, she repeatedly goes back to Naago, unable to truly separate from him.

Ndeye Seneba Seck in Madame Brouette
Ndeye Seneba Seck in Madame Brouette

Throughout the story, Mati’s character is connected with the symbol of the partridge, both by the song of the chorus and the bird which hangs in a cage outside their house. Absa explains that, “for me the woman is sacred. I compare her to a partridge. In the days of royal courts, the partridge was a sacred animal, used in mystical practices because it brought luck and happiness. This bird could not be eaten by just anyone. You had to deserve it. Like a woman. You must deserve her.” Madame Brouette venerates the strength and self-sufficiency of women from within the male-dominated society of Senegal.  Women are depicted like the bird in the cage, seeking liberation and freedom, while men fight to maintain their dominance. Absa’s veneration of the ‘sacred’ woman could be seen as patronising or idealising, but instead, the gritty reality of this film shows women, not on a pedestal but in the street grafting for a small dream. Mati is not a perfect woman, but she is a woman who should be admired.

This film provoked, shocked, entertained and beguiled me with its beautiful and heart-breaking story. Rokhaya Niang is captivating as the powerful Mati, but it is Ndeye Seneba Seck, playing her daughter, who steals the screen with her wilful charm despite the situation around her. These characters, the vivid and colourful cinematography and a comic slight-of-hand lure you in, before stabbing you in the heart. Madame Brouette is a woman trying to empower herself and rise above her situation, but a fatal capacity for love appears to be her downfall. Considering this, the song sung by the chorus as the film closes is both comforting and ironic:

“Hear this ode, beautiful woman! You see, I am your mother. Your tears banish my joy. Now come, take your first steps in life. Wealth may disappear one day, but love is eternal. So come, take refuge in my arms.”

It is this tragic flaw of love which Absa almost presents as a universal, timeless reality of this narrative, and of the situation of women in this region of West Africa. Even as a male director, Moussa Sene Absa deftly mediates these complex themes which transcend the screen to make strong statements about the situation of women in Senegal. I defy you not to be moved. Brouette is a real testament to the importance of African cinema, and why there should be more chances to see it in British cinemas.

The “Africa on Film” series continues at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden with Viva Rica (2010) on 13th January. Entry is free. To register your place visit the website.