Desert Island Movie #9: Carlos Saura’s Carmen
I go to Spain for my next Desert Island movie. The director is the man who has for many years been called “The most Spanish of Spanish directors.”And its central motif is Flamenco one of the classic dances of Spain forged out the music and movement of the Spanish Gypsies.
Now although the film is called Carlos Saura’s Carmen(1983) it probably should’ve been called Carlos Suara and Antonio Gades’ Carmen because the film so fully reflects both men’s contribution to the finished product. The directorial conception was by Carlos Saura, both men wrote the screenplay while Antonio Gades both choreographed the dances and played the lead.
The film was based on the famous novella written in 1846 by Prosper Merimee a Frenchman living in Spain. The story was adapted into an even more famous opera in 1875 by another Frenchman, Georges Bizet. Besides the opera there are stage adaptations, sometimes with music and other times without, in virtually every major language in the world. Starting in 1907 right up to 2011 the story of Carmen and Don Jose’ has been adapted for the screen more than 40 times. The best known versions are; Carmen (1915) Directed by Raoul Walsh starring Theda Bara, The Loves of Carmen (1948) starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, Carmen Jones (1954), an all black version adapted by Oscar Hammerstein the 3rd, starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, First name: Carmen by Jean Luc Godard, Bizet’s Carmen (1984) and Carmen: A hip opera (2001) Starring Beyonce’.
Carlos Saura’s version is not the opera. The story this time is set in contemporary Spain (circa 1983) and in the environment of a Flamenco Dance company. Still it utilizes Bizet’s classic score throughout. We sometimes hear a recording of the opera but most of the music is adapted by Paco de Lucia who appears as himself in the film. As mentioned before Saura and Gades collaborated on all aspects of the film. This was their second time working together. And later they collaborated on another film creating Saura’s much celebrated Flamenco Trilogy; Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo
(Love the Magician- 1986). Carmen is the most popular of the three. It is also my favorite of all the adaptations I’ve seen.
Before going on I want to say a word about Antonio Gades (1936-2004). He was Spain’s premiere Flamenco dancer and choreographer for most of his career. His company toured the world and received many international accolades for the excellence of their work. Weeks before his death of cancer he was awarded Cuba’s highest honor and is buried there as per his request. I had the occasion to see his company perform twice and was astonished by its excellence both times. This film preserves so much of that in the timeless way that only celluloid can. From my perspective this is the best dance centered movie I seen thus far because it doesn’t photograph the dances on a stage as many film adaptations of celebrated ballets have done but keeps it in the informal atmosphere of the rehearsal studio. And among the many things that makes this film a singular movie viewing experience for me are; the fluid camera work in a mostly confined space, the use of color to suggest the emotions being dramatized, the symbolic use of mirrors indicating the dual aspect of blending the traditional version of the story with the new. But what keeps me truly riveted to the screen is first the dancing. The strength and precision it requires, the kinetic energy it sparks, the non-verbal suggestions it evokes and its erotic allure. All of this fueled by one of the world’s great musical compositions. Laura Del Sol who plays Carmen is an actress/dancer whose dual abilities and beauty matched up so well with Antonio Gades’ that it gives the film a sexual force that is not present in any of the other adaptation, including the soft porn Carmen, Baby (1967) made by Radley Metzger.
This is a film I view often because it stimulates me in so many ways. It stimulates my emotions, excites my aesthetic sensibilities and from time to time sends me back to reading the novella just for the sheer pleasure of it. I l quite like the other two films of the trilogy but I absolutely love Carmen. And if you can’t have the one you love on your desert island, what’s the point of being there?