Next to Romeo & Juliet, no tale of romance has been quite as impressionable as Carmen. From a novella by Mérimée and a famous opera by Bizet, this story of passion and betrayal has stood the test of time, not to mention a boatload of adaptations. With so many in existence, another Carmen might not seem like what the world of cinema really needs. But under the direction of Carlos Saura, this 1983 version really stands out, thanks to its unique storytelling and an unforgettable set of dance moves.
Renowned toe-tapper Antonio Gades plays a version of himself, a man searching high and low for the lead in his flamenco-tinged performance of Carmen. Spain’s finest dancers show their stuff, but none strike Antonio as the right choice to play the titular firebrand. But whilst scouting a local dance studio, one figure tickles our boy’s fancy: a young woman actually named Carmen (Laura del Sol), who embodies Antonio’s vision for the character. Despite her lack of experience and tendency to show up late for rehearsals, Carmen is hired for the gig, though not everyone is pleased by her casting. As tensions flare between Carmen and her castmates, so does Antonio’s lust for her rise, plunging both of them into a rather steamy affair. But when it’s discovered that Carmen harbors her fair share of secrets, her coupling with Antonio threatens to meet an end not too far from what Mérimée envisioned.
Carmen embraces the idea of art imitating life, and then some. Employed here is a thematic device similar to what was used in Blood Wedding, a previous meeting of the minds between Saura and Gates. In depicting a bare-bones dress rehearsal, the men took pleasure in blurring genres and fiddling with reality. You never knew if you were watching the performers or their characters, a concept that Carmen develops even further. The film is a true example of reinvention, as it pays homage to its source material while respectfully tweaking it to fit in a modern setting. It’s much more accessible than Blood Wedding, since it’s easier to differentiate between “real life” and what’s part of the show. But that doesn’t prevent Carmen from springing to life once these worlds collide. On their own, the concurrent story threads are involving enough; woven together, they produce a special electricity that few films can duplicate. There’s no end to the pleasure of such scenes as when Carmen’s rivalry with the company’s best dancer (Cristina Hoyos) spills over into a rehearsal session, or when Antonio confronts a figure from Carmen’s past.
Another element that gives Carmen its distinctive quality is the choreography. All the long-winded monologues in the world can’t hold a candle to when the same job gets done with nary a word being spoken. Such is the case with Carmen, a picture that’s short on dialogue but abundant with dance sequences that are nothing short of riveting. The story itself appears tailor-made for the flamenco treatment, as this style perfectly encapsulates the fevered emotions flowing through its veins. Such scenes become a true part of the overall viewing experience, as opposed to just being there for show in something inferior like You Got Served. It goes without saying that there are two sides to Carmen, though it’s a shame they don’t get along any better. For as often as the dancing sets the screen on fire, it’s cooled down exponentially whenever the focus is on Antonio’s offstage romance. It’s not as effectively established as its theatrical counterpart, and while the end is only fitting, the final twist of the knife (so to speak) doesn’t hit you as hard as it should.
Carmen isn’t a traditional piece by any means, centered more on enhancing its artistic attributes than in just telling another doomed love story. One might shudder at the mere thought of something out of the ordinary, but it’s hard to imagine even the subtitle-phobic being frightened by Carmen and its tantalizing nature.