5 November 2009 | Ali_John_Catterall
Where's the va-va-voom?
Screen-wise, the story of 'Carmen' has lent itself to more than two dozen outings: the plot, with its core elements of jealous lovers, femme fatales and outlaws, being powerful (indeed, simplistic) enough to embrace several contemporary stylings, such as 1954's all-black Carmen Jones, 2001's 'Carmen: A Hip Hopera', and Jean-Luc Godard's 1983 film First Name: Carmen.
Similarly, while it's a popular misconception that 'Carmen' first flowed from composer Bizet's pen, the crowd-pleasing opera is just one of numerous interpretations, including dance and theatre productions, of Prosper Mérimée's 1847 source text.
Though a crowd-pleaser now, and a terrific enlivener of many a 'Classical Lite' compilation CD, opera-goers attending the 1875 premiere performance actually thought it less than the Bizet's knees, owing to its interminable chunks of dialogue, later expunged or set to music. It's those glorious songs we most associate Carmen with these days: and, tellingly, this version - a straight, self-important retelling of the novella - feels infinitely poorer for their exclusion.
As if anticipating the loss, director Aranda attempts to hold the interest during almost two hours of screen time, through full-frontal nudity, judicious smatterings of gore, and authentically course dialogue.
It's in this attention to earthy period detail that the filmmakers have really succeeded: the costumes, lighting and production design are uniformly excellent. For such a purist take, however, occasional liberties have been taken - some good, some indifferent. In a canny nod to the political climate of the age, the French soldier José has become Basque, although the use of flashbacks and the inclusion of Mérimée as a character in his own story doesn't add a great deal.
Most damagingly, the marked lack of eroticism, or sexual chemistry between Vega and Sbaraglia, is frankly baffling, while hysterical, near-burlesque turns are the order of the day. As the titular seductress, Vega resembles nothing as much as a nose-powdered catwalk model flouncing about with a broken heel.