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Battle of the Carmens – Godard’s Prénom Carmen & Saura’s Carmen (1983)

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So what are the chances that two completely re-imagined versions based on a single classic from another medium would be released in the same year? Impossible? The source, an 1845 novella, simply entitled Carmen, had already been adapted into a famous opera in 1875 by Bizet. It was a “one-hit wonder,” the composer’s only successful opera, but it inspired two ballets and two Broadway musicals, and, up to 1983, had been filmed for the cinema 15 times, with yet another version to follow immediately in 1984, with five more versions released by 2011.

The story is simple: Bad girl Carmen flirts with a soldier, who ignores her. Fuming, she causes a ruckus and is arrested, and who should her guard turn out to be? The soldier she tried to entice earlier, of course. She seduces him and escapes, and the soldier is imprisoned for letting her go. During his time in prison, the soldier becomes obsessed with Carmen, and once released, he rushes to her to declare his love. Carmen convinces him to go AWOL and join her band of smugglers. It doesn’t take Carmen long to move on to another man – a bullfighter – and the soldier regrets his actions and leaves, returning home to attend to his sick mother. Time passes, and the soldier notices Carmen outside of the arena where her bullfighter boyfriend is performing. Sick with jealousy, he demands she leave with him, but she refuses and throws away the ring he had given her. The soldier stabs Carmen to death.

Perhaps the attraction is the proletariat setting, loaded with gypsies, soldiers, and criminals, a major departure for opera narratives that up until then were dominated by stories of aristocrats, royalty and wealthy merchants. Every audience, no matter the century, could relate, and the story was simple enough to be adapted for all social classes and races without losing any of its power.

Enter Jean-Luc Godard, French New Wave provocateur, and Carlos Saura, Spain’s most popular filmmaker in the 1970s. The styles of these two revered directors could not be more divergent, and, ironically, both are in their late 80s today and still working.

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Prénom Carmen, Godard’s project, has all of the basic elements of the source material : a straight-arrow bank guard and a gang of bank robbers that includes Carmen and the eventual third participant in the love triangle, the gang’s leader. In a move typical to his style, Godard adds an additional character – a libidinous has-been film director played by Godard, himself, and a string quartet that appears intermittently. Robbery evolves into kidnapping and the tease/rejection cycle escalates, reaching the expected climax, only with a gun, not a knife.

Godard juxtaposes the preparations of the robbery/kidnapping team with the rehearsals of the string quartet, so what is he suggesting – that crime is an art or, is art a crime? After all, the robbers appear to be on a mission to raise money to fund a film. Or is he simply commenting on the muddled morality of the 80s? After all, Godard goes to new lengths in his film by not sparing us explicit depictions of the drive for satisfaction – sexual, social and political – or our general the lack of interest in anything outside those spheres of interest, such as bystanders who continue reading their newspapers while a vicious crime goes down in front of them.

Prénom Carmen wowed the Venice Film Festival, taking both the Golden Lion and plus an additional technical award for cinematography and sound.

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Carmen, as directed by Carlos Saura, charged head-on into the source material from a completely different angle – the earthy and classical art form of flamenco – and racked-up awards around the globe. Between 1981 and 1986, Saura compiled a trilogy of films in tribute to flamenco, arguably the most exciting and sensual of dance forms. Carmenwas the second film, and the plot involves a troupe that reconstructs the original novella in flamenco primarily using Bizet’s iconic music. The choreographer falls for the lead dancer and life begins to imitate art as the plotlines of real life begin to follow the path of the basic story all the way to the tragic climax, entirely within the confines of a rehearsal hall.

The use of flamenco allows Saura to tap into an energy that no other art form can provide. World-famous guitarist Paco De Lucia is on hand to transform the familiar Bizet tunes into gut-wrenching flamenco laments, and the rough action on the dance floor effectively translates all of the violence and passion to levels not possible in operatic or dramatic narrative form. Saura effectively braids the illusion created by the dance project with the reality in which the players perform, a tricky- and brave – move.

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Flamenco should be experienced live – nothing can compare with the experience – but through creative camera work and editing, Saura captures the heart of the original story, that of a strong and independent woman who causes chaos among her suitors.

In a time laden with remakes and sequels, today’s filmmakers should take a tip from what happened in 1983, when two cinematic giants showed us how to re-imagine classic tales, and how to forge new and creative pathways into the core of our mythical parables. 

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