In an early episode in Carmen, Carlos Saura’s second dance film with renowned flamenco artist Antonio Gades (in what would inevitably prove to be the second film of their collaborative Flamenco trilogy), a group of musicians rehearse at a large, open dance studio within earshot of the choreographer, Antonio (Gades) as he struggles to find the proper tempo suitable to adapting the Seguedilla from Bizet’s opera for a flamenco performance. Reinterpreting the operatic work from a waltzy, 3/4 timed vocal piece to a sprightly, improvisational bulería, the musicians perform their rendition to the receptive Antonio who, along with his studio partner – and perhaps, erstwhile paramour – Cristina (Cristina Hoyos), begin to re-envision Carmen, not as a French composer’s projection of the fiery gypsy seductress – and more broadly, a foreigner’s stereotypical notions of Spanish culture – but rather, as an indigenous adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novel, disconnected from the now iconic flourishes of Bizet’s opera. But the process of casting Carmen invariably proves to be a more difficult task. Unable to find his envisioned Carmen from their stock company of highly talented dancers, and having implicitly rejected the idea of lead bailaora Cristina for the role in favor of casting a younger, more intriguingly mercurial performer, Antonio decides to broaden his search by visiting local dance schools, unconsciously setting his sights on an inscrutable student coincidentally named Carmen (Laura del Sol) after making an unconscious impression on him by arriving late to a castanet class. From the onset, Antonio’s personal selection of the undisciplined Carmen seems ill conceived. Unable to properly follow Cristina’s instruction to articulate gestures and project the necessary intensity demanded by the challenging choreography, Carmen initially seems relegated to return to the mediocre performances that have defined her earlier career as a flamenco side show dancer at a local restaurant that caters to a predominantly tourist clientele. However, as Antonio becomes increasingly consumed with the idea of molding Carmen into both the image of his envisioned, tragic heroine and ideal romantic interest, truth and fiction begin to blur in the intoxicating haze of passion, possession, jealousy, and betrayal. Anticipating the interwoven Pirandellian narratives of Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy (especially the young couple of Through the Olive Trees), Carmen is also an insightful and provocative exposition on the interpenetration between reality and performance. However, in contrast to the theme of elevated humanity through the performance of the quotidian that is inherent in Kiarostami’s trilogy, Saura’s perspective is integrally rooted to a cultural interrogation on the underlying nature – and perception – of Spanish identity. At the heart of the discourse is Antonio’s deliberate attempt to divest the story of Carmen from the cultural caricatures inherent in Bizet’s opera (a rejection that is crystallized in the troupe’s parodic performance using the opera as a soundtrack for Antonio’s birthday party), and consequently, re-infuse the authenticity of native performance. It is interesting to note that through Antonio’s deliberate dismantling of cultural myth, Saura incisively defines his character as an implicit embodiment (or more precisely, a de facto authority) of Spanish cultural authenticity. Juxtaposed against his increasing obsession towards his protégée through the unifying narrative of Mérimée’s tragic tale, Antonio’s integral role is invariably – and paradoxically – both underscored and subverted by his increasingly self-destructive acts of objectification and machismo, and trenchantly exposes the unconscious, dark side of Spanish identity as well.
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