20 July 2001 | Geofbob
Carmen reclaimed for Spain, but not for the 20th century
On the face of it, Carlos Saura's 1983 Carmen is simply yet another version - to join dozens of others - of Bizet's world-famous opera, using flamenco music and dance, and a modern story-line, alongside elements of the opera. Following in the footsteps of many a Hollywood musical, Saura sets his story in the period of rehearsal before a new production, except in this case there is no successful opening night as the climax of the movie, but a tragic death echoing the opera. The music and dancing are dramatic, passionate and exciting, especially for those of us who love flamenco; and the weaving together of the modern characters and plot with those of the opera is effective, if somewhat contrived.
There is, however, an ironic aspect to the film. Possibly no country in the western world has a stronger culture than Spain. Spanish food, drink, language, literature, music, dance and much else are unique and immediately identifiable. Yet one of its national icons - the free-spirited gypsy Carmen, who seduces and abandons men at will - is a totally French creation. Bizet, who never set foot in Spain, based his 1875 opera on a story by Prosper Merimée, also a Frenchman; and no matter how Spanish his music sounds, it is merely imitation. So for Saura to base a film on Carmen has a significance not shared by the other two films in his "flamenco trilogy" - Blood Wedding and Love the Magician - where the originals are quintessentially Spanish.
It is tempting therefore to regard the film as a kind of reclamation for Spain of Bizet's pseudo-Spanish Carmen. And certainly in the adaptation for guitar of some of Bizet's music, and in the translation to flamenco dance of some of the action of the opera, such a reclamation or reconciliation has taken place. But I for one wish that Saura had gone further; had deconstructed the original stereotypes; and had shown that by the late 20th century José had grown up, and could refrain from knifing Carmen, no matter how Spanish he might feel and how free-spirited she might be. In other words, perhaps a happy Hollywood ending would not have been such a bad idea!