La Femme Anjola took five years to make, but it is worth the wait. It sees director Mildred Okwo reunite with writer Tunde Babalola (who wrote Okwo’s last film with Rita Dominic, 2011’s The Meeting). Babalola’s brilliant screenplay delivers a thrilling, suspense-filled story reminiscent of early genre classics, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) and David Miller’s Sudden Fear (1954). It is an ambitious exploration of the film noir genre, situating a deeply Nigerian story in a global cinematic tradition.
The story is told from the perspective of Dejare (Nonso Bassey), a young Lagos Big Boy whose life is on what appears to be the right track: he has a successful career as a stockbroker and a new engagement to the love of his life. But he craves adventure, something different from his routine.
When he hears of an opening for a saxophonist at a bar called The Basement, he auditions and, surely enough, gets into the band.
The band is led by the singer Anjola (Rita Dominic). When she first hits the stage singing a cover of Simi’s “O Wa N’be,” she lights up the screen with powerful charisma. As the onscreen audience cheers, captivated by her aura, the viewer off-screen is just as charmed.
Soon, her elegance and grace catches the wandering eye of Dejare. The sexual tension between the two is apparent, even as she initially objects to his musical style.
Anjola, married to gangleader and The Basement owner Odera Kalu (Chris Iheuwa in a chilling performance), makes sexual advances towards Dejare, which he tries to rebuff. But his longing for her is betrayed when he starts to channel the energy into his sex life with his fiancée, who grows suspicious of his new aggressiveness. He assures her there is nothing amiss; he has a lot to lose if he starts an affair. But he eventually does just that, succumbing to Anjola’s charm and falling for her.
The danger of such carelessness is emphasized during a scene when Odera throws someone through a window in a fit of anger. Dejare is reminded that he is sleeping with the wife of a dangerous man. Even when his fiancée confirms the affair and leaves him, he remains drawn to Anjola’s vulnerability.
She tells him that her husband keeps her in an oppressive marriage on account of his wealth and influence. She wants to break free. He asks how she plans to do that. She tells him, and we are whisked into a dramatic turn of events, involving more violence, a standoff at gun point in Cape Town, and a car explosion in Lagos.
Aside the riveting plot and pacing, La Femme Anjola is powered by the unmistakable chemistry between the two leads. Bassey, in his big screen debut, is saddled with the task of going toe-to-toe with one of the most celebrated Nollywood icons at the top of her game. He does that with great success: his brings a boyish charm, coolness, and charisma that make his Dejare truly magnetic.
For Dominic, her performance in this movie could not be further from her turn in The Meeting. She ditches the aging makeup and comedic accent for a rare mix of vulnerability and strength. In one scene, she screams into the rain as she bashes a man’s head in: “I’m free, I’m free!” One is both terrified and happy for her attainment of “freedom.” In that singular scene, she is at once victim, victor, and villain, something not many could ever hope to pull off.
La Femme Anjola’s biggest accomplishment is its faithfulness to the classic elements of its genre—dim lighting, the femme fatale’s love of cigarettes, jazz bar aesthetic, scandalous love affair, murder, and double-crossing—while making sure to reinvent it as African with the costume, the set designs by Kelechi Odu, and hairstyling (bartender Adanna’s hair choices—played by Adejumoke Aderounmu—are such delights).
Although it drags in a final scene with social commentary that veers into didacticism and almost betrays the film’s lack of confidence in its own narrative excellence, La Femme Anjola is a roaring cinematic success. It is sure to be one of Nollywood’s biggest fan favorites.
La Femme Anjola hit theatres on March 19.
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.