God I love this film. I first saw it when I was 11 and it’s remained a favourite of mine ever since. On first viewing it, I couldn’t work out what I was watching; a documentary? A drama? A flamenco performance? The truth is that ‘Carmen’ is all these things and more. The simplicity of the narrative, the ferocious brilliance of the musicians and dancers and, perhaps most of all, the daring way in which the multiple layers of the story – the filmed performances, casual rehearsal scenes and off-stage lives of the dancers – are intertwined, make it an utterly bewitching and deeply fascinating spectacle. In talking about it I have been unable to avoid spoilers so be warned, if you want the full hit just go out and buy this DVD and watch it. The events are in essence no different to those that take place in the opera and Merimee’s book, but the way in which they’re presented by Saura is unique and enthralling.
Successful flamenco director Antonio (Gades) is organising his own version of the opera Carmen, giving Bizet’s famous musical drama a contemporary flamenco interpretation. After a long search for a dancer with the necessary qualities to play the titular lead, he meets the beautiful Carmen (Del Sol) and is immediately captivated by her. Intense rehearsals with lead dancer Christina (Hoyos) and musical director Paco (De Lucia) reveal her technical weaknesses, but also a willingness to learn. As development of the production deepens, so does Carmen’s relationship with Antonio, and the two begin an affair. Antonio is initially ecstatic but, like her theatrical namesake, Carmen’s nature is capricious. Antonio finds himself losing all reason in his overwhelming desire to possess her completely. As real life and theatrical drama mix, events spiral towards a devastating climax…
From its strikingly abrupt opening, ‘Carmen’ pulses with the complex rhythms, passionate singing and explosive dance steps of flamenco. This noble and passionate art fills virtually every scene in the film. The very first shot is of a dance studio filled with a troupe of female dancers, Gades at their head. They stand poised in expectant silence for a few seconds before he quietly counts time and leads them into an elegant routine. While they perform it, he retreats to the back of the hall to watch them, calling out individual girls to perform the pattern singly. His hawk-like visage broods over each one, gazing only at their eyes. Clearly this man is looking for something more than just a very good dancer. This is confirmed a few moments later, when he joins his friend Paco, who asks him how the girls were. “Some of them are alright,” he says, “But I just don’t see them as Carmen.”
One of the crucial elements to ‘Carmen’ is that no attempt is made to give the dancers and musicians alternate personalities or characters. Antonio Gades’ character is called… Antonio. Paco de Lucia’s is… Paco. Christina Hoyos’ is… Christina and so on. Only newcomer Del Sol rejoices in her character’s name, Carmen, clearly a step Saura regarded as being necessary for the cohesion of the plot. Giving non-professional actors lead roles with their real names is a risky strategy, potentially disastrous, but here it works perfectly, complementing the naturalistic feel of the whole production. The success of the approach is largely due to the lack of self-consciousness exhibited by the participants, their incendiary talent and the fact that Saura doesn’t try to force them into doing anything unnatural.
Foremost is Gades. Dignified, driven, intensely passionate, rake-thin and devastatingly handsome, he’s utterly natural on camera, not only quite spellbinding to watch when dancing but equally convincing carrying out the dramatic work. Gades is the living embodiment of duende, the complex and multifaceted Spanish term about which much has been written, but which could be said, in an extremely simplified form, to mean ‘energetic instinct’. Proud and stern, he rules his flamenco school with an iron glare, driving his company hard: “Look how she does it!” he instructs an inattentive student with inconceivable disdain, instructing her to pay more attention to the equally disciplinarian lead dancer Christina, “Don’t just follow her steps!”
Next to the intense, fiery Gades, De Lucia comes across as an oddly patrician figure, gentle and beautiful, almost priest-like. While it’s obvious that he’s not a professional actor, the chemistry between him and Antonio is just right. The scene in which the two of them listen to the buxom castanet instructor declaim to her class: “Your breasts like a bull’s horn, but soft and warm…” is priceless.
Del Sol – a woman one would gladly kill for – is given the debut of a lifetime as the titular lead. A talented singer and dancer, she also looks the part, as described by Gades early in the film as he quotes: “Carmen had a wild and strange beauty, her lips, full but well-shaped, opened onto teeth whiter than almonds. Her hair was long, black and shiny, with blue glints like the feathers of a raven. Her eyes had a voluptuous but surly expression that I’ve never been able to find again. Gypsy eyes, wolf eyes, as the Spanish saying goes.” Wow! I only ever saw Del Sol in one other film, Stephen Frears’ stylish take on the Brit gangster film, ‘The Hit’ with Terrence Stamp and a young Tim Roth and she was great in what was admittedly a limited role.
Simply put, ‘Carmen’ has some of the best dance sequences I’ve ever seen captured in a film, not because they’re shot in any particularly innovative or technically stunning way, but because the way he shoots the dancers allows their true spirit – and the spirit of the dance – to come through. Gades dancing the ferruca is such a strong, positive, beautiful expression of masculine physicality, it’s no wonder that he turns to it when he’s confused. The dance represents the function of all art performed at a higher level, in that it is not only something to be seen by others and a vehicle of self-expression for the artist, but also a means by which the artist can understand themselves and, by extension, life.
Similarly, the scenes when Gades dances formally with Christina are remarkable for their elegance, representing with apparent ease principles of dignity and respect that are inherent – but rarely actualised – within the male-female relationship.
Saura constructs painterly tableaux with the dancers (as in the scene where Gades issues instructions to his assembled dancers from a tabletop, looking like a cross between Spartacus and Michael Collins), a proclivity he would exercise brilliantly in his stunning 1999 biopic ‘Goya in Bordeaux’. Rather than the early 19th century, though, some scenes in ‘Carmen’ resonate with the classical lighting and dramatic arrangements of early Renaissance painting, especially during the dance sequences.
A lot of the charm of ‘Carmen’ comes from the moments when Saura captures the dancers and musicians chatting, grabbing a few moment’s extra practice or simply relaxing unselfconsciously. The fact that these moments of genuine spontaneity are woven seamlessly into the overall structure of the film adds greatly to its authenticity. In the constant pounding of heels and ring of upraised voices, the division between who is an ‘actor’, and who is a ‘dancer’, becomes invisible and, with it, the separation between conventional cinematic narrative, pure dance and documentary becomes equally transparent. At these moments, Saura’s film touches on something else, almost mystical in its capacity to invoke wonder in the viewer.
Saura’s impeccable eye for classical composition and his skill at merging the ‘real’ and the ‘dramatic’ to produce an experience akin to awe, come together during the Tabacalera sequence that comes half an hour into the film. Gades has assembled the entire company to rehearse a key scene: the face-off between Carmen and a rival, played by Christina, in the tobacco factory, and Carmen’s subsequent arrest for her murder.
At the outset, the scene is very informal. The camera roams slowly amongst the dancers lounging about, practicing some unusual moves, chatting and generally relaxing. Gades climbs on a table and calls them to order. He describes the scene and what he wants to achieve and then asks those who are not dancing to leave the stage. In a single shot, Saura follows the musicians as they depart and then holds for over a minute on the dancers remaining on the stage as they find their seats and are arranged by Christina into the correct pattern, the kind of diminishing chaos that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever taken part in any kind of theatrical production. Then everyone – the few musicians in the foreground and the company of dancers seated in the middle distance – grows still and silent. A few moments pass then, still in the same shot, a few of the women begin to beat out a sharp, repetitive percussive rhythm on the tables. One by one the other women take it up until it’s overwhelming.
Suddenly our perspective – and the entire atmosphere – changes. We’re now on the stage looking directly at one of the tables of women. Six women are seated, four facing us, two at either end, facing each other. Their classical postures and dramatic lighting render the scene almost akin to a Renaissance painting – the women could be a panel of judges or a town council called to meeting. The sound has also changed; the beat is quieter now, only being rapped out by the half a dozen women we can see. The shift in perception is immediate and total; we were watching a ‘rehearsal’. Now we’ve entered into the ‘story’.
The camera holds them all in the frame for a few moments, then closes in fast, centring on the middle two. The beat shifts, sidesteps, and the women begin singing in unison, their voices ringing with extraordinary power and clarity. The camera pans slowly over their faces and as it reaches the last of them the scene changes again, this time to a wide shot of the whole stage full of women sitting at their tables, all of whom are now heard banging away and belting out the song with abandon, moving and swaying with the rhythm. The camera moves down the table of women, settling on Christina, who rises slowly and begins to dance her way around the tables, singing out her sly challenge: ‘In this tobacco factory, there are bad girls, there are good girls.’
She reaches the table where Carmen is sitting and, lunging forward with particular emphasis, sings: ‘In this tobacco factory, there are more bitches than good girls!’ Carmen rises and responds to her insult with a challenge of her own.
The women divide into two groups and an extraordinary confrontation is danced out between them over several minutes, the body of dancers breaking, combining, dilating and then coming together in tight focus as both women close in on each other, circling like birds of prey, staring ferociously into each other's eyes.
Eventually Carmen is forced back onto a table where she seizes a knife lying nearby and, in a stunningly choreographed series of movements, slashes Christina’s throat. The tumult of sound – music, singing, stamping feet – immediately dies, swallowed up into silence. Christina’s group lower her gently to the ground where she ‘dies’.
The entire company is frozen, still, like a painting. Then Gades comes, in the role of Jose, to lead Carmen away. When he’s led her to one side, he stops the rehearsal, clapping his hands and saying ‘Very good everyone’. The dancers relax. The spell is broken; ‘reality’ has returned.
Very simple devices, but the way our perception of what is happening is being played with is thrilling. The crucial establishing shot of the group of seated women beating out the rhythm resembles a later scene, when the character who has been introduced as Del Sol’s gangster husband, Jose Fernandez Montoya, recently released from prison, faces off against Antonio in a superb dance with sticks that resembles some kind of choreographed martial arts duel. First we’re shown the company gathered at a table playing cards. Antonio accuses of cheating and the latter flies into a rage and challenges him. Both stalk off camera.
In the next shot, Antonio is standing with his back to us, on the left hand side of the frame, visible only from the waist down, the stick held menacingly by his side. With superb dramatic tension, Jose slowly enters the empty space on the right hand side of the frame with the studied steps of a fencer approaching his opponent. The two duel and Jose is beaten, falling to the ground. Carmen sides with Antonio and the two back slowly away from the others, staring at them. The intensity of these scenes has to be seen to be fully appreciated. After a moment Carmen looks up at the still focused Antonio and smiles; ‘Hey, it’s OK to stop,’ she says. He comes out of character and stops the rehearsal.
In another breathtaking sequence, following a scene in which Carmen abruptly leaves Antonio after their first night together, he dances the farruca alone in his empty studio, trying to make sense of his feelings. Spreading his arms wide like a hovering bird, he steps with almost painfully slow grace to one side, observing his movements with intense concentration in the wall-length mirror. He executes a perfect, silent, extraordinarily fast spin leading into a deep lunge. Yet when he straightens he appears troubled, the dance forgotten. In a sudden zoom worthy of Scorsese, Saura moves the camera with extraordinary speed towards Gades as he rubs his chin, musing to himself: “I just don’t know what to do,” reflecting in the sudden, disconcerting camera movement the love struck dancer’s agitated state of mind. Again Gades turns towards the mirror, this time coming close to it, performing a move and then simply staring at his reflection.
Saura brings Bizet’s music up as Gades says to himself, with increasing bitterness: ‘And now her, with a fan, a comb, a flower, a mantilla… the works. The cliché. So what? Why not?’ And into shot steps Carmen dressed in the classical Spanish garb he’s described, fanning herself and circling him with the hungry gaze of a wolf. This, the literal manifestation of his internal fantasy, is a brilliantly simple way to evoke the complete possession that Carmen now has of Antonio’s senses. She is literally within and without him, everywhere he looks.
Like Powell and Pressburger in ‘The Red Shoes’ and Marcel Carne in ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, Saura shows us the theatrical stage, but then takes us not just onto it, but into it (and into the lives of those who live on it), transgressing the usually clear lines between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fictional’. Such playing around with concepts of reality and identity could be tediously clever-clever were they not handled with such deftness. Cinematographer Teo de Escamilla must be singled out for praise for his achievement in weaving the different phases of the story together. He performs a cinematic shell game, never hiding any of the film’s manipulations from the viewer, but carrying them out in plain sight like a good magician should. There you go: song, dance, narrative transparency AND more gorgeous Spanish girls than you can shake your maracas at. Ole!
‘Carmen’ is presented in 1:66:1 aspect ratio. This is a clean and good-looking, though not perfect, DVD. It is a trifle dark and there is some grain. However, if, like me, you’ve only ever seen ‘Carmen’ on well-worn VHS, then it will be nothing short of a revelation. Generally it looks very good, Saura’s naturalistic set-ups given good treatment by the transfer.
The DVD has the original Spanish Mono soundtrack which sounds pretty good, bar a few moments of flutter and wobble. For a movie that pulses continually with both classical and flamenco music, one would have thought that a 5.1 or even a 2.0 alternative soundtrack would have been in order.
The lack of special features, given the status the film has achieved, is little short of a crime, yet I’m so overjoyed to finally own the film on DVD – with reasonable audio and good visual qualities respectively – that I can overlook even this heinous omission. I honestly think this is a perfect film. Eyes, ears, heart and soul will be delighted. Available for under £6 online, this DVD is a lot more than just highly recommended – it is truly essential.
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