2021, Movies

Saloum (2021, Jean Luc Herbulot)

My first Senegalese film (as far as I know), this is a tonally inconsistent horror movie which tries to trick you into thinking it’s something else more than once. It’s super stylized and some of my confusion with it likely stems from having never been to Africa and knowing literally nothing about this part of the continent. I wonder how much of this story is taken from local mythology and local context, which might help the audience appreciate what’s up.


So first up let me just say the production values are stellar. A few years ago TIFF did a “City to City” with Lagos. (Sadly, “City to City” seems to have been retired.) And one common theme with the Nollywood movies we saw that year was how bad their production values were. Not so this movie – it looks great and supremely professional. Also, the acting is very good and any issues I had with the film are about story and conceptual choices, nothing to do with the talent on screen or the quality of the production.

We’re plunged into the aftermath of the 2003 Guinea-Bissau coup. (I have to identify the year because Guinea-Bissau has had multiple 21st century coups.) Wikipedia tells me it was bloodless but the movie doesn’t want you to think that. We’re led to believe our heroes are horrible people at the beginning. It’s an interesting decision that I’m not 100% sure is justified. The opening of the film feels like a Tarantino-inspired gangster film, in some ways. Given what comes later, it’s kind of an odd choice. There’s so much text on the screen early on that I literally said aloud “oh dear.”

Then they find their way to a weird eco resort in the Saloum delta (a place I’ve never heard of before, despite intentions to visit Senegal) and it turns into a bit of an Agatha-Christie-type “when will the secrets be revealed?” thriller. There’s a unique spin on this, given the nature of the eco resort and that’s appreciated. (I should point out that text on the screen is a recurring thing at this point, still, which is not appreciated.)

But then the leader of our heroes gets his revenge and awakes the demons and, well, things don’t get better. They take no time at all to violate the cardinal rule of horror films, and then they violate it over and over and over again.

But what’s worse is that there are multiple continuity errors in this part of the movie, where we’re left wondering “what happened to…?” or even “what happened to that last shot?” Given the overall quality of the film from a production standpoint the rest of the time, this is a little weird and disappointing.

The tonal changes – from gangster film to chamber thriller to outright action-horror movie – might have worked but the way this is executed they just don’t. There’s too much going on in the film in general and you’re left wondering why our heroes had to be who they are rather than just people. Too many ideas, not enough time thinking about how to execute them.

I want to point out, though, that there are a couple really cool moments in the score, including one where the music subs in for a character’s scream (as she’s mute). The score in general is pretty well done.

But from a story point of view, this is a mess of a movie. And it was frustrating rather than entertaining.


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