The timeless sex bomb

March 22, 2002

Whether portrayed as black bisexual, porn star or fascist stooge, Carmen has pulled in cinema audiences for more than a century. Ann Davies examines her enduring appeal.

She may be regarded as a siren of the opera house, but Carmen has been a major film star since the early days of cinema. There are more than 70 Carmen films, many based on the 1875 Bizet opera, which has superseded the original 1845 Prosper Mérimée novella with its roots in the contemporary French taste for Spanish exotica.

Not only is the list of Carmen films more extensive than previously thought, but the film corpus takes Carmen well beyond Bizet and Mérimée's exotic femme fatale to encompass a wide and often contradictory range of interpretations. Besides filmic versions of the opera, very popular in the 1970s and 1980s, it covers a surprisingly wide range of cinematic styles including cartoons and animation, art-house cinema, comedy, Hollywood blockbuster and pornography. It is also an international phenomenon. If the largest number of films are American and French, there are nevertheless substantial numbers made in Spain, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom; there are even Venezuelan and Senegalese Carmens.

It is unclear when the first Carmen film was made. One source suggests a date as early as 1899, but a strong candidate to start the long list was a short by pioneer female film director Alice Guy in either 1900 or 1906. Source information on the early films is unsurprisingly scant at times, but nearly 40 silent Carmens were made before the first sound version appeared in 1931. Of these, quite a number have survived, the earliest dating back to 1910. While some of these films draw on the original Mérimée novella and retell the generic Carmen tale, others feature vignettes from the opera.

The Carmen narrative was a gift for the early film-makers, offering a popular story that carried a trace of opera-house high culture. It represented a particular risk, however, in terms of copyright. Bizet died only three months after Carmen debuted, but his librettists were longer-lived, and the opera did not go out of copyright until the early 1980s. Film-makers had to adopt subterfuges to create a distance from Bizet, usually by overtly acknowledging the Mérimée novella as a source.

The first major Carmen film star was from the opera. Geraldine Farrar, an American, was well known for her stage interpretations of Carmen . Her first major role was in Cecil B. DeMille's Carmen of 1915. Today Farrar looks rather matronly for the role, but at the time she proved a great success, eclipsing the performance of the first film vamp Theda Bara, who appeared in the Raoul Walsh version released simultaneously with DeMille's. Bara's provocative kohl-rimmed stare fits in better with popular notions of Carmen as femme fatale , but she lost out in the competition with Farrar, and Walsh's film no longer survives. Walsh had a second try in 19 with a rather slapstick version starring Dolores del Río, who comes to the same deadly end, smiling vampirically as the blood trickles from her mouth.

Other comedy versions include parodies such as Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (1916). Some rewrote the story to provide a happy ending, most charmingly in Lotte Reiniger's silhouette animation of 1933. But the rewriting of Carmen does not always have such a pleasant motivation. In 1938, the story was reinterpreted to fit in with fascist ideology. During the Third Reich, and while the Spanish civil war ground to its conclusion, Hitler and Goebbels invited the Spanish film star Imperio Argentina to Berlin to star in German and Spanish remakes of Carmen . The German version, Andalusische Nächte , appears to be lost, but the Spanish version, Carmen, la de Triana , stills exists. It offers a José who dies warning his former regiment of an ambush. Carmen does not die but weeps penitently at his coffin, relegated to the margins of her own story in favour of a man's sacrificial duty to his fatherland.

With Rita Hayworth's The Loves of Carmen (1948), Carmen moved into mass merchandising and film tie-ins. Women were offered the chance to dress in the Carmen style - even a Carmen fashion colour was created, a pinky red - and thus purchase the illusion of sexual and economic freedom in postwar America. Despite the commercial motive underlying this move, its tacit acknowledgement that women might desire to identify with Carmen rather than be respectable underscored Carmen as more than just an object of masculine desire. Not that this notion of Carmen as sex object was to disappear: only six years later publicity would describe Dorothy Dandridge of Carmen Jones as a "sizzling sex bomb" for "boys of all ages". As the first black Carmen in an all-black cast, Dandridge drew attention to the question of race underlying the story - the Carmen narrative has recycled the ethnically as well as the sexually exotic for the pleasure of bourgeois audiences. But Carmen Jones itself does little to confront these issues, since it seems to offer only the "novelty" of black actors singing jazzed-up opera.

In the early 1980s Bizet's Carmen finally came out of copyright, triggering a glut of Carmen films, including a flamenco adaptation by Carlos Saura and an updated account by Jean-Luc Godard with music by Beethoven and a Carmen who robs banks. Italian director Francesco Rosi gave a "realist" version of the opera, sung in the dusty streets and mountains of Andalusia, and there was a Franco-Italian soft-porn version called Carmen Naked . Two new Carmens came out last year: a hiphop version starring Beyoncé Knowles of the band Destiny's Child, and a Senegalese film with a black bisexual Carmen. Spanish director Vicente Aranda is now filming his take on the tale.

It is clear that a critique of Carmen cannot confine itself to recycling clichéd notions of the femme fatale . Carmen speaks not only to questions of sexual difference but also to ones of race; she speaks of the bohemian and of Spain as the exotic other that nevertheless lies close at hand. But her story also allows different cultural concerns to be expressed within specific historical contexts, which in turn suggests that Carmen's meaning is always open to interpretation. But her main value is as a symbol of overt and exotic female sexuality, which is, of course, a major reason for the continued interest of film-makers and audiences. Film-makers have gone back to Carmen time and again, not only for her star quality but also for her versatility; for her capacity to reveal the cultural contradictions of every epoch - and put on a good show while she is at it.

Ann Davies is a research associate at the Centre for Research into Film and Media at the University of Newcastle. The centre is involved in a three-year project, funded by the AHRB, to archive and critique Carmen in the cinema. It will host a conference on Carmen in film on March 25-. Details: www.ncl.ac.uk/crif/carmen.htm .

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