After months of being teased with clips and titillating pictures of Nollywood’s first neo-noir film on social media, we finally get to see one of the most anticipated films of 2020.
With a good number of Nollywood films subverting public gathering restrictions brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic through different Netflix acquisition deals, it was expected that La Femme Anjola would take that route. But that didn’t happen, at least, not yet.
The film highlights a common phenomenon in Nigeria: a lot of businesses that appear legal are fronts for money laundering and drug trafficking. In Nigeria, crime is often associated with the poor, and so many live in gated estates and communities to keep them at a distance. But our characters with their proper English and fine cars and expensive clothes are caught up in this muddy world of crime. The movie unmasks the Nigerian elite—no one is exactly what they seem.
La Femme Anjola concerns a young stockbroker, Dejare Johnson (Nonso Bassey), who has it all going for him: engaged to a beautiful woman, a happy close-knit family, a great job, a good home, a fine car. But he is bored. He’s passionate about music and is a skilled saxophonist. In pursuit of this passion, he joins a band at a local bar and crosses paths with the beautiful and conceited Anjola Kalu (Rita Dominic), wife of a wealthy gangster and vocalist for the band. They have a minor altercation at their first meeting, and a fellow band member warns him about her, but he rebuffs, “I work with sharks all day.” He is not merely asserting that he is not intimidated by her arrogance. As a stockbroker, Dejare is confident, takes successful investment risks, much to the envy of his colleagues. But he isn’t quite prepared for Anjola. His life is upturned the moment he meets her. Their story pirouettes to a love affair. There’s sex. Pillow talk. Heartbreak and betrayal. And there’s also murder.
The movie takes the form of the 1944 Hollywood noir film, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Both films are told through flashbacks and aided by a voice-over from the protagonists. Where Dejare is an investment banker, Walter Neff of Double Indemnity was an insurance salesman. They are also weak, unassuming men who slip into criminality for the women they are infatuated with. Needless to say, both Anjola and Phyllis Dietrichson are femme fatales. The films also share a clever crime in common. Mildred Okwo draws influences from the classic noir film and delivers neo-noir, but in an African setting.
The referencing also reveals the filmmaker’s ambitious and deliberate efforts to pay homage to Double Indemnity and other noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. It goes to show how far the industry has come. The last time Nollywood reminded us of Double Indemnity was in 2009 with Frank Rajah Arase’s Shakira (Face of Deceit), but this was a bad imitation, complete with dialogue rip-offs.
Acclaimed screenwriter Tunde Babalola and director Okwo collaborate on this. Their last collaboration was in 2011—the classic comedy The Meeting—which satirized corruption in Nigeria’s public service. La Femme Anjola takes a jab is at the rogue Nigerian police.
La Femme Anjola is rich with brilliant performances, especially from its male lead, Bassey, who is excellent in his first major film role. He has an emotional range that lets him go from confident to timid, from vulnerable to angry in situations that call for their expression, employing intensity and nuance in right proportions. He also shares great chemistry with love interests Anjola and Thabisa (Mumbi Maina).
Also striking is the film’s cinematography. Mildred Okwo works with Jonathan Kovel who had been put to good use in the brilliant South African noir, Jahmil T Qubeka’s 2012 Of Good Report, shot in monochrome. Lagos, however, is too vibrant and chaotic for black and white, and so we get colors but saturated with dark hue. Unlike standard Nollywood, in this film, Lagos is not just fine bridges and Lekki mansions, and neither is the grittiness of the city’s slums romanticized in an attempt to be different. Kovel captures the duality of the city. Lagos is complex, it is an embodiment of these different ends of the spectrum, metaphorical for the characters found in her. If La Femme Anjola says anything about Lagosians and humans in general, it is that no one is either good or bad, just humans in pursuit of different desires.
Take the character inspector Danladi (Paul Adams) for instance. A skilled policeman who uncomplicates the maze of crime surrounding the murder in the film. When he catches his culprit, rather than apprehend him, he demands a settlement instead. It’s easy to dismiss the policeman as being corrupt just like his cohorts in traffic who harass and extort drivers and passengers alike. But a closer look reveals that he’s a victim of the Nigerian situation. After years of dedication to the Nigerian force he has barely anything to show for it. For retirement, he’s sure to be doomed to an irregular monthly stipend as pension. This is the reality of many Nigerian police officers, and echoes the events of the #EndSARS protests in October of 2020. While rallying for the disbandment of the rogue SARS (for Special Anti-Robbery Squad) unit and an end to police brutality, Nigerians had tabled a five-point demand to the government that included better pay and compensation for the police, acknowledging the poor conditions under which police render duty that pushes them to corruption.
The slow-burn thriller is still showing in some cinemas in Nigeria, underappreciated by cinemagoers too used to ensemble comedies. But, La Femme Anjola is one of the most intriguing and brilliant pieces of cinema to come out of Nollywood and serves as a beacon of hope and nudge to filmmakers who wish to explore stories and genres beyond the staple slapstick comedy and melodrama.