DVD Review: The Flamenco Trilogy, CARMEN (1983)

Watching Carlos Saura's Carmen (1983) nearly thirty years after it was originally released is not unlike listening to a scratchy old recording of a favourite song, where every click, pop and flutter boots you out of the zone and reminds you how much time has passed since then. For the second film in his Flamenco Trilogy, Saura evidently wanted to give the same dance company who starred in Blood Wedding (1981) a bigger stage on which to perform - not an unreasonable idea, at least on paper.

But Blood Wedding's stripped-down, minimalist central performance was part of the attraction, not least for the way removing any distractions let you appreciate the almost magical way Saura's cast appeared to go straight from practising dance steps to living and breathing their parts with nothing in between. Replacing that with the real world feels like a mistake, along with a story that tries to make explicit all the subtexts Blood Wedding expressed quite happily without ever baldly explaining itself like this.

The film sees the company playing themselves, or analogues thereof, as they prepare to stage a flamenco-themed version of the novel Carmen by Prosper Mérimée that inspired Bizet's opera. This is markedly more ambitious than Blood Wedding's 'dress rehearsal' - we see them outside the theatre, see their personal lives and how they're driven by assorted hopes, dreams and occasional darker emotions. Plenty of directors had explored the same general territory by that point - cinema loves the idea performers are forever tottering on the edge, from The Red Shoes to Black Swan.

Leader and choreographer Antonio (Antonio Gades, Saura's collaborator for each film in the trilogy) is determined to find the perfect girl to play the fiery anti-heroine, and when he auditions Carmen (Laura del Sol) he's convinced she's the one. Obsessed with the girl's spirited, animal beauty, the two start a passionate affair despite the misgivings of the rest of the company. But Carmen refuses to be tied down by any one man, and Antonio finds himself falling prey to ever stronger fits of blind jealousy - a state of mind which looks increasingly likely to lead him to do something terrible.

Much like Blood Wedding, there is no definitive performance of the opera here - we don't see the story in anything like its entirety. The main focus is Antonio's tortured obsession and how it mirrors the opera's melodramatics, and it's this that proves the more serious flaw. Saura flatly doesn't seem up to crossing the streams; while he's unquestionably a masterful director, it feels as if he's stumbling badly with this more direct approach. There's nothing revolutionary about the subtexts here, and while Gades and company are reasonable actors as well as performers they're not up to bringing fairly workmanlike psychodrama to life.

On a more facile, but still significant level, after three decades much of the production design just looks laughably dated. Blood Wedding is hardly timeless, but there's something about the way that film constructs its own little world that means it still holds up surprisingly well. The lack of any real costumes or emphasis on grounding the company outside the rehearsal space lets you concentrate on the dancers, their exceptional skill and the deeper meanings behind the picture. Carmen constantly reminds you that outside it's 1983, and it frequently does this very, very badly.

The costumes are a mess of clashing neon pastel hues and awful sweaters, the hair self-consciously suave, the backgrounds conspicuously community theatre - yes, all these things are pretty shallow nitpicks in a sense but they do get in the way to a frustrating extent. It helps immeasurably when you want to appreciate a dancer's skill if they're not wearing some ghastly lime-green outfit that'd have anyone who unearthed it in a thrift store fleeing in terror.

It creates a feeling of disassociation, of artifice, and this doesn't stop at fashion disasters. The music in Blood Wedding is (apparently) all played and sung on set, and when Carmen swaps much of this for backing tracks something feels like it's been lost. The strongest set piece by a long way is when the female dancers rehearse a fight - West Side Story-style - in the sweatshop tobacco factory where Mérimée's heroine works, with no instrumentation bar the women pounding out the rhythm as they sing.

For those few minutes we get to see that strange transformation Saura and company conjured up so effortlessly in Blood Wedding, and Carmen doesn't so much catch fire as soar triumphant out of the ashes it's just left behind. With a few words, the right camera angle, the drumming of many feet on the boards, we're there. The rivalry between Carmen and Antonio's deputy (Christina Hoyos) playing the woman she attacks is so convincing the climax of the fight ("Did she just do what I thought she did, or are they just playing their parts?") is more riveting, more viscerally shocking than countless horror films have ever achieved.

But it's just one scene, after which we're dumped back into a second-rate Saturday Night Fever knockoff and the illusion drifts out of reach all over again. Bar that moment and a couple of other glimpses of greatness, after the elegance of Blood Wedding the second of Saura's attempts to catch the same magic feels like a failure. It's made by the same greatly talented people with the same passion and spirit, but the catalyst that turned Blood Wedding into something truly special is mostly absent. Completists and the curious should check it out, but for most people Carlos Saura's Carmen comes cautiously recommended at best.

THE DISCS:

Studio Canal UK have re-released The Flamenco Trilogy as three separate branded DVDs, available to buy now. These are all bare-bones releases, with no obvious attempt made to clean up the prints, though to be fair when Criterion released the trilogy in the US it was as part of their budget line and given little more attention. Nonetheless, these discs have something of a throwaway feel: the check disc for Carmen still features an Optimum logo and an ugly menu nothing like the cover art, and the UI for all three is fairly cheap and cheerful, if easy to navigate. Blood Wedding and El Amor Brujo have eight chapter stops, Carmen twelve.

AUDIO:

All three discs come with the original mono tracks, which work well enough for the most part. There's some slight distortion but not too much more than most home video releases dating back so long. The Spanish seems clear and distinct enough and the score never overwhelms the mix. The only exception is El Amor Brujo, where the audio sounds as if it's suffering from a frustratingly low bitrate - during some of the songs there seems to be a distinct, recurring flutter and overall tinny, metallic quality, though this could be there on the original. English subtitles don't look burnt in but can't be turned off (at least not on a software player on a PC) though they're clear and easy to read, though again El Amor Brujo skips the occasional line during the musical numbers.

VIDEO:

The pictures are serviceable, but nothing special. Blood Wedding and Carmen come off best - they're soft and fairly blurred but with a reasonable colour palette that means both films are still perfectly watchable on a modest screen. El Amor Brujo is much worse, though, watchable again but with several scenes sporting clearly visible halos around the actors, distracting blocking, static and large pieces of dirt. It's better than videotape, but large televisions or monitors are probably going to make this disc look fairly ropy. Given how much the films rely on their visuals it's somewhat disappointing.

The only extra on any of the discs is a trailer for Carmen.

Carlos Saura's The Flamenco Trilogy largely deserves its acclaim - certainly all three, even the disappointing Carmen, are obvious cultural milestones made by people with a passionate interest in the creative media with which they've chosen to express themselves. Each of the trilogy shows how much Saura, his crew, Antonio Gades and his dancers love their art and the heritage that informs it. But at its best the trilogy is simply great cinema, mashing up the best aspects of stage, screen and story-telling in a way very few other directors have ever attempted, let alone pulled off so well. While Studio Canal's UK DVD releases are somewhat of a letdown for such important, often brilliant films, if you just want an introduction to Saura's work they're a reasonable starting point and come cautiously recommended. 
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