Carmen: From Silent Film to MTV

Carmen: From Silent Film to MTV

Carmen: From Silent Film to MTV

Carmen: From Silent Film to MTV

Synopsis

Since Prosper Merimee and Georges Bizet (with his librettists Meilhac and Halevy) brought the figure of the Spanish Carmen to prominence in the nineteenth century an astonishing eighty or so film versions of the story have been made. This collection of essays gathers together a unique body of scholarly critique focused on that Carmen narrative in film. It covers the phenomenon from a number of aspects: cultural studies, gender studies, studies in race and representation, musicology, film history, and the history of performance. The essays take us from the days of silent film to twenty-first century hip-hop style, showing, through a variety of theoretical and historical perspectives that, despite social and cultural transformations-particularly in terms of gender, sexuality and race-remarkably little has changed in terms of basic human desires and anxieties, at least as they are represented in this body of films."

Excerpt

Ann Davies

Commentators sometimes refer to Carmen as myth, implying (intentionally or not) the timelessness of her story, an idea that implies that somehow Carmen has always been with us in Western culture. And Carmen’s story taps into age-old concerns about sexual and ethnic otherness. The specific origins of Carmen have been much more recent, however. The original Carmen narrative appeared as a short story by the French writer Prosper Mérimée, published in 1845 and revised in 1847 to include a general ethnographic concluding chapter on Gypsy customs. This novella offers us Carmen’s story at third hand: it is told by an imprisoned don José to an unidentified traveller, who in turn recounts it to us the readers. The narrator had earlier assisted the bandit José to escape from the forces of the law, and José has since returned the favour by rescuing the narrator from Carmen’s seductive clutches. Finally awaiting execution for Carmen’s murder, José bemoans to the narrator the perfidies of women that have brought him so low. The narrator, in listening to and recording the story in order to pass it on, connives to join José in a narrative conspiracy against independent women such as Carmen. The refusal of patriarchy to allow Carmen to speak for herself is of a piece with the misogynistic tone struck from the very beginning with the story’s preceding epigraph, which informs us that women are as bitter as gall and only offer any pleasure when they are either in bed or in the grave. Nonetheless, the story simultaneously celebrates the illicit desirability of the woman who wishes to free herself from patriarchal constraints; and thus ever since Mérimée first offered us Carmen, subsequent attempts to tell Carmen’s tale trace the struggle between her efforts to tell her own story and those of others to tell it for her.

The first version of Carmen, however, is not the most familiar. Most people do not come to Carmen through the Mérimée novella at all, but through the vastly better known operatic adaptation of 1875 by Georges Bizet with his librettists Meilhac and Halévy. Bizet’s opera overshadows most if not all subsequent attempts to adapt Carmen’s story in various media, and his imprint is to be found in many of the film versions made throughout the last century, and indeed in the discussions of many of the contributors to the present volume. Filmmakers had perforce to acknowledge, at least implicitly, the authority of the opera over the story in legal terms at least. Although . . .

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