"As sleek and accomplished as this film is, the characters are essentially archetypical cut-outs, a retread of things we've seen so many times before."

It may seem a ridiculous question, but do we really need this film?

Based, like Bizet's opera, on Prosper Merimee's 1845 novella about jealousy and passion, this stylish and well-constructed film is a slick retelling of an old tale. The question is, though, does the tale require retelling? Is there something in the history of Carmen so universal that it merits yet another treatment, however lush? My answer would have to be no.

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Vicente Aranda's take on the story is a classical tale of faithless woman, doomed lover and romance gone awry. Carmen (Paz Vega), a striking gypsy girl who works in a cigarette factory in 19th century Spain, gets herself into serious trouble after slashing a rival's face. Leonardo Sbaraglia's Jose, career soldier and all-around serious guy, is tricked by her flashing eyes and cunning words into letting her escape, and thus begins their tragic affair. She soon divests Jose of his virginity (in a gorgeously shot scene that's about 50 times sexier than anything Hollywood will manage this year) and they begin to meet illicitly.

Without her work at the factory, though, Carmen turns to prostitution and matters come to a head when she fails to turn up for an assignation with Jose, instead arriving at the brothel with his despised commander. Inflamed, Jose challenges his superior to a duel and kills the man.

His commission and place in society lost, he takes up with some of Carmen's bandit friends and becomes feared as "Jose the Basque". Soon his lover comes to join them in the hideout in the hills, but their idyll is broken by the shock arrival of Carmen's gangster husband. Jose continues to work with the bandit group for a while, until he eventually snaps and, with Carmen's aid, murders her husband in a duel. Yet more trouble comes between them when the wanton Carmen catches the eye of a dashing matador and Jose's paranoia and desire to possess her entirely soon overwhelm him, with tragic consequences for all.

The story is told in flashback, narrated by Jose from his prison cell to the sympathetic writer who has become his friend, so we know from the outset that he's headed for death. Thus, rather than creating suspense, the film relies for its dramatic potential on fulfilling certain expectations the audience has. Just how heartless will Carmen be? How tortured is Jose? How does she bring about his inevitable doom?

All of these propositions are thrillingly and effectively fulfilled, but this is where the film's essential lack can be seen. The woman as Evil Eve destroying Ignorant Adam has been played and replayed from every conceivable angle in every conceivable art form, and Carmen has nothing new to offer. Instead, it rehashes the same old tired cliches of man brought to his knees by woman's sexual power, and of woman as untameable bird of prey. That it does so with class is unquestionable: the era is accurately and evocatively conveyed and the performances are flawless. Vega, although not the most typical beauty to ever grace the screen, has a vivid luminosity that can only be dreamed of by your vapid Keira Knightleys, while Sparaglia's Jose strikes the perfect note between obsession and desperation.

So why my lack of enthusiasm? Perhaps because, as sleek and accomplished as this film is, the characters are essentially archetypical cut-outs, a retread of things we've seen so many times before. I suspect that the talents of all involved would be better served by a fresh look at gender relations. This film is enjoyable and visually gratifying, but ultimately safe and risk free.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2006
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Spanish retelling of the classic tale of passion and jealousy.
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Rebecca Naughten ***

Director: Vicente Aranda

Writer: Vicente Aranda, Joaquin Jorda, based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée

Starring: Paz Vega, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Antonio Dechent, Joan Crosas, Jay Benedict, Joe Mackay, Jose Linuesa

Year: 2003

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Spain


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