Review: La Femme Anjola, Nollywood’s Fantastic Noir

In La Femme Anjola, the director Mildred Okwo inserts Nigerian elements into the noir genre — or maybe it’s the other way round: she inserts noir elements into a Nigerian story? No matter. What is clear is that the film is a cocktail of Nigeria and noir. What’s even better is that the film is made with a level of care that is hard to find in Nollywood. It’s so good to look at and easy to get caught up in.

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Much of that is down to the casting, Jonathan Kovel’s good-looking cinematography, Kelechi Odu’s production design, Yolanda Okereke’s costumes, and Okwo’s own direction. The film is written by Tunde Babalola, who has been in a creative slump for years now but appears energised (or maybe edited into semi-greatness) by Okwo. His screenplay appears guided by the spirits of the writers Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and James Hadley Chase. But you do not need to know any of those novelists to enjoy this film. I’ll have more to say about the writing in a moment.

On to the plot. Early in the film, we are introduced to the protagonist, Dejare (played impressively by newcomer Nonso Bassey), a finance professional who is quite the risk taker. His office is somewhere on Lagos Island; his apartment is not too far. (In fact, members of the Lagos culture scene would recognise Dejare’s apartment as identical to the Victoria Island event space, 16 by 16.) We come to learn that Dejare (aka DJ) plays the saxophone, has a sister who loves him, and is engaged to be married to a beautiful South African lady. It’s a great life. And as we are told repeatedly, he is one of those much-admired, much-envied, much-coveted Lagos inventions, the “Island Big Boy”.

Well, watch how that unravels.

The key to the unravelling comes in the seductive shape of the titular character, Anjola (played with relish by Rita Dominic). Boy meets girl when he gets a parttime gig playing the sax at a bar on the Mainland; she is the lead vocalist and the bar is named after her. As with this type of romances, they do not quite hit it off at first. Girl is too arrogant and boy is too self-possessed. But give it time. As they draw closer into each other’s orbit, everyone else becomes disposable. But you do not need to be a seer to figure out there’s something sinister lurking, especially when it is revealed that girl is married.

At that point, if you are familiar with the noir genre, you might recall the line about a certain male character doing something really bad “for money and for a woman” from Billy Wilder’s classic 1944 film Double Indemnity. That is not exactly the story here but the ethos is the same. Man falls for woman. Woman makes demand of man. Somebody gets in trouble.

There is a fair bit of female empowerment going on in the weeds of this story and as Anjola, Dominic gets quite a juicy role. This isn’t her best onscreen performance — I think that still goes to her turn in Izu Ojukwu’s ’76 — but she does hit the right notes, even as I am sure there will be viewers who would declare that a different actress would better fit the ravishing lust-intensive form the film insists upon; personally, I can’t quite think of another Nollywood actress able to give off a giddy scent of sexual allure and experience. And it’s a safe prediction that should this film achieve the success it deserves, the femme fatale character will receive many Nollywood iterations.

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Still, as anyone knows, the femme fatale is only as powerful as the desire she provokes in her hapless male victims, and in Bassey, we get a man enraptured by lust, a man seeking to escape his obligations to the woman on whose finger he has placed an engagement ring. (The only issue is that he doesn’t know it yet.) Will the Nollywood economic model of copycatting produce a pair better than the Dominic-Bassey combination? We’ll have to wait. The other challenge is surrounding the pair with a host of supporting characters as competent as what La Femme Anjola gives us. Bit roles are filled with actors that deliver — the best of them being Jumoke Aderounmu, an actress I had never heard of before but who I would love to see again. She plays a bartender and draws attention away from the film’s many spoilt and corrupt characters. She should be in more films.

Let’s return to the subject of screenwriting. It has consistently been the bane of New Nollywood, in that as every other part of Nigerian filmmaking has progressed, writing a story that works without inspiring eyerolls in a thinking audience has remained a challenge. As I said earlier, La Femme Anjola belongs to the crime writing tradition, and Babalola, the screenwriter, crafts a Nigerian film out of the tradition’s barebones — but having seen his last few projects, I admit I saw this film expecting some of the issues that have plagued his efforts of late.

These issues include an overreliance on Hollywood cliché and an overinvestment in cringey exchanges masquerading as clever dialogue. That almost doesn’t happen here, which leads me to the conclusion that Okwo must have taken a hands-on approach to the script, though she allows one on-the-nose line of dialogue connecting “sex” and “sax” (*eyeroll*). When during the credits, I spotted her name as script editor, it felt like it was a note to Nollywood directors, reminding them that they need to be heavily involved in the script editing/rewriting process. And if they can’t do that, then they should contract someone else — someone with a surfeit of film knowledge — to look at “finished” scripts. If it has worked wonders for the work of the acclaimed Babalola, there is a chance everyone else in Nollywood would benefit from what I imagine is at best a gently intrusive process.

It’s not a perfect film but its flaws, to my mind, are mostly restricted to the last few scenes, which appear to have been shot without the same level of care as earlier scenes. But that’s a quibble. With The Meeting, the Mildred Okwo and Rita Dominic creative partnership made a much-praised film. This time, they have produced a superb, more tangibly ambitious film. You must see it.

Grade: A

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