* out of 5
Since landing the title role in Julio Medem’s breathtaking Lucía y el sexo/Sex and Lucia (2001), Paz Vega’s name seems to have become a byword for explicit nudity. After said intoxicating turn, a performance that subsequently earned her a Goya Award for Best New Actress, she has made film after film in which she gratuitously loses her clothes. Vicente Aranda’s take on the myth of Carmen provides no exception.
It is the latest in a long line of films to tackle the enigma and legend of the Gypsy seductress – a symbol of Spanish femininity, in spite of the fact that she hails from Eastern Europe by way of Egypt. Based on the famous 1847 novella by Prosper Mérimée about a fiery siren who enchants, corrupts and ultimately destroys a young inexperienced soldier, this torpid retelling lacks the basic passion and gusto that the tale is famed for. There is a distinct lack of chemistry between Vega and Leonardo Sbaraglia, who plays the solider José and both leads appear to be reading from different scripts. Whereas Vega amps up the sexuality to the point of exhaustion, pouting and heaving as if giving her best Marilyn Monroe caricature impression (and then some…), Sbaraglia barely registers either side of flaccid blandness – whether losing his virginity or killing a man, he has the look of a more serious and constipated Joseph Fiennes, which is in retrospect no mean feat.
Visually the film garners some positives – the production values are high and certainly recreate the feeling and appearance of the early 19th century; with the costume department deserving particular applause. Yet this is surely the very least we should expect from a film clearly aimed at an international audience, and equally, from a director such as Aranda. The themes of eroticism, betrayal and obsession are synonymous with the legendary Spaniard, as his sultry 1991 classic Amantes attests. Yet with Carmen he unfortunately strikes a bum note. The film fails to grip or enthrall at all; as a man retells his catastrophic downfall at the hands of a temptress, I hardly cared – preferring instead to mentally cast as yet unmade adaptations of some of my favourite books, whilst simultaneously counting down the arduous minutes until those glorious (and hopefully more interesting) credits would finally roll. (Javier Bardem would play Pablo Escobar in the Michael Mann directed Killing Pablo, for example.)
In the end however, it appears that by faithfully reinforcing the myth of Carmen in an attempt to sell both it and clichés of Spain, abroad, Aranda has missed the opportunity to create something innovative, a-la Jean-Luc Godard (Prénom Carmen), Carlos Saura (Carmen) and Imanol Uribe (Días contados). The fact that Saura’s fabulous flamenco feast has more fervour and feeling in one flick of a señorita’s skirt than Aranda’s version manages in its entirety, really does say it all.