The film Carmen (1983) by the director Carlos Saura and the dancer & choreographer Antonio Gades played a significant role to make flamenco popular in the world.  I figure many people started learning flamenco dance after watching this movie.  The film is based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée, the French writer, in 1845 and recreated by Georges Bizet, the French composer, in 1875. 

The film consists of several levels of representation: world view created by Mérimée and Bizet, dance theater by Gades and his company, and realistic world of flamenco artists written and directed by Saura.  Although some documentary aspects can be seen in the movie, the documentary elements do not stand out in the movie.  Instead, the life of Antonio and Carmen as dancers in the movie crosses with the characters of José and Carmen in the fiction of Mérimée, making the viewers wondering between fiction and reality.


The character of Carmen, a Spanish archetype today, is actually a creation of Mérimée and Bizet and the cultural product of historical moment, reflecting the literary tendency of the era – Romanticism.  The characteristics of the Romanticism include freedom, emotion, “culto de yo” or subjectivity, and individualism. The director Saura, in fact, modernized the exotic and romantic vision of Spain found in the Carmen of Mérimée. 


Antonio and his company play realistic interpretation of the play Carmen, and this forms the second level of representation.  Antonio looks for the character of Carmen and dance studios and tablaos.  He found his character Carmen (played by Laura del Sol), also working in a tablao where the foreigners expect to see the exotic Spanish dance.  The contemplative look of foreign tourists in the film Carmen could be associated with the look of romantic French citizen towards Spanish women in the 19th century.


This fusion of Saura’s dancer Carmen and Mérimée’s Carmen takes place in the mind of Antonio who plays the role of Don José.  Here the director Saura makes the parallel between two stories.  In the movie, after the practice of the scene in which Don José renders to the seduction of Mérimée’s Carmen, Carmen of Saura’s film takes an initiative to have a romantic relation with Antonio.  After the affair, Antonio who is abandoned by her and confused enters to his studio and faces the mirror.  Here for the first time this Saura’s Carmen appears in the mind of Antonio as an embodiment of romantic vision of stereotyped flamenco.  In his fantasy, Carmen shows up as a “coquette” like French romantics’ stereotype with fan, flower, comb, and “mantilla” of laces.  From this nodal point on a number of components converge the reality of Antonio with the fiction of Mérimée to create meanings to a new Carmen.

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The life of the artists intertwines with the theatrical production.  The viewers end up wondering between “reality” and the “fiction.”  Particularly this confusion occurs because theater production of Antonio’s Carmen only can be seen in the rehearsal segments in the studio. Between these rehearsals, as the third level of representation, Saura introduces the life of the artists.  Before the nodal point (the mirror scene), Saura treats the life of the artists almost like a documental.  In the movie, real name of artists are used except for Laura del Sol who takes the name of Carmen.  Antonio Gades, Cristina Hoyos, and Paco de Lucia keep their real first name.  In this part of the movie we see the process of creation of the production.  When Antonio listens to Bizet’s music, the guitarist Paco suggests Antonio to make the piece a rhythm of buleria.  This adaptation of blueria shows the desire of the flamenco artists to transform the French play to something real, Andalucian and flamenco.  


Also, the scene of the birthday celebration represents the flamenco artists’ “real” life and their authentic art.  Later the Bizet’s music superimposes the pure flamenco music and takes power over it.  Carmen appears with stereotypical flamenco costumes and exaggerated makeup.  Carmen and Cristina dance also in an exaggerated way with a lot of contortions, which remind the dance of zarzuela.  Later, the member of the company wear costumes; one as bull fighter and the other as bull, and do a parody version of the scene of Toreador in the Mérimée’s opera.


The inversion and the transformation of the role of Antonio and Carmen can represent a new disposition and attitude of women during the transition period in Spain from the dictatorship to the democracy.  Carmen in the movie is not submissive but independent and sexually more open.  In fact, Saura’s modern Carmen seems analogous to the Carmen of Merimee, but Saura’s Carmen is, without doubt, much more free than the romantic vision of Mérimée of the Spanish women.  Saura and Gades, in collaboration, created a new Carmen.  In this new Carmen Saura and Gades played and manipulated reality and fiction through the production pieces by flamenco artists, Mérimée and Bizet’s visions.  This new Carmen fascinated the viewers and inspired and attracted many to the world of flamenco.

Carlos Saura

Carlos Saura