Prosper Mérimée published a story about jealousy and femicide 178 years ago, but even today its central character fascinates the world. Carmen, the book, released in 4 parts in 1845, inspired an opera, at least two great ballets, novels, series, and films. The latest adaptation marks the directorial debut of dancer Benjamin Millepied. Carmen, starring Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera, transports the drama of Don José, the soldier who “ruins his life” because of the gypsy Carmen, to the border between Mexico and the United States. We’ll talk about the film, but first, we need to focus on Carmen, the symbol of the femme fatale who overcomes the boundaries of cultures and time.
Carmen: the book and the origin
The gypsy Carmen was born from the imagination of the writer Prosper Mérimée, famous in France as an archaeologist and historian (many of the monuments throughout France were preserved because of his work), who was one of the pioneers of the novel format, a literary genre that emerged around of 1829 and was essentially a long story or short novel. As he traveled frequently, his discoveries generated many curious stories, which he collected over time.
His passage through Spain, in 1830, would be fundamental for his literary legacy. It was there that he studied the local culture in depth and circulated among the Spanish aristocracy, making friends with the Countess of Montijo, mother of the future Empress Eugenie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III. It was the Countess who told him the true story that would inspire Carmen, officially cited in 1831, in the series of articles published by Mérimée about his stay abroad. According to a letter from the writer to the countess, he admits that he was inspired by the story of a gigolo from Malaga who killed his mistress, a prostitute of whom he was jealous. “Since I have been studying gypsies for some time, I made my heroine a gypsy,” he wrote.
Carmen, is a beautiful gypsy who robs a soldier, Don José de Navarro, who falls in love with her. Out of jealousy, he kills another man and that’s why he becomes a bandit. Unable to be faithful to only one love, Carmen and José’s destiny is violent and tragic.
If you are familiar with George Bizet‘s opera, which popularized and immortalized the story of Carmen, you will be surprised by the book’s differences. I read it and had another vision of the character, who was reduced to a cruel and cold antagonist in the best-known works. In the book, it is much more complex. Starting with the fact that when she started the romance with José, she was already married and the first victim of the toxicity and violence of José’s love for her, it is precisely this man, killed by the ex-soldier in an attack of “jealousy”. Later, still obsessed with the gypsy, José discovers that she has fallen in love with a toreador and in a rage kills her, being arrested and condemned to death.
Carmen is told in the first person, by Merimée, as if he had known the couple and been a victim of both. When he discovers that José will be executed for Carmen’s murder, he meets him again and hears his confession of how he fell in love and destroyed himself with his obsession, which is why the narrative is so misogynistic, because it reflected the machismo of the time. Carmen was a free woman, and as a gypsy, she believed in tarot cards. When the cards reveal that she won’t survive José, she accepts her fate, but the modern one doesn’t submit to it.
Incredibly the book was not successful, Colomba, published earlier (also with a woman destroying a man’s life when she involves him in a revenge plan), was more popular. Only in 1875, after the author’s death, was the opera produced that radically changed the original text and made the gypsy eternal.
Carmen, the opera and the ballets
For better or for worse, it is the stage adaptation of Merimée’s book that served as the basis for all versions of Carmen’s story, which, as I mentioned, “simplified” her as a manipulative and inconsequential woman. Don José is a correct man and is taken from life alongside the pure and dedicated Micaela by a whim of the gypsy, offended because he rejected her in her first attempt at seduction. Carmen wants – and succeeds – to transform José into a bandit and murderer, but she soon gets tired of him and moves on to her next passion. Heartbroken, desperate and obsessed, he kills her in a fit of jealousy and is arrested at the end of the performance.
Screenwriters Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy divided the plot into 4 acts, and it premiered on March 3, 1875, in Paris, shocking and scandalizing the public with the theme, of the gypsy’s sexual freedom and having people smoke on stage. It is one of the most popular operas of all time, with recognizable melodies even outside the classical environment, because it brought realism to Art.
In dance, Carmen has two popular versions. The version of 1949, by Roland Petit, was created especially for his future wife Zizi Jeanmarie, who was jealous of his relationship with Margot Fonteyn and was given the ballet that would mark their lives forever. And the other, from 1967, is a production of the 1967 Bolshoi ballet, choreographed by Alberto Alonso and starring Maya Plisetskaya. We’ll talk more about it in another post. For me, besides Zizi, the best Carmen on stage was Alicia Alonso and it is a technically complex role.
In the cinema, Carmen the seductress
Hollywood ‘discovered’ Carmen in 1913, with the silent film starring Marion Leonard, and produced several other versions since then, including Carmen Jones, with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. One of the most popular versions of the film is from 1983, signed by Carlos Saura, which mixes the story of Prosper Mérimée with the present, where a flamenco dance choreographer (Antonio Gades) falls in love with his ballerina (Laura del Sol) with tragic consequences. The film is spec-pe-ta-cu-lar, for its dancing, acting, and screenplay.
Benjamin Millepied‘s version is a modern musical, “reimagining” Carmen without following the more familiar plot. With music by Nicholas Britell and songs written by him with Julieta Venegas, Taura Stinson, and Tracy “The DOC” Curry, the film takes place on the border between Mexico and the United States, where Carmen (Melissa Barrera) is rescued by soldier Aidan (Paul Mescal) and together they fight to evade the authorities as they make their way to Los Angeles.
What is clear is the timeless appeal of a toxic, suffocating, yet misogynistic love story. Carmen‘s freedom is misunderstood or unacceptable by dominating men and therefore survives. It’s almost 180 years old and we’ll still search for her many times because she’s the rebellious bird that no one imprisons. Nobody.
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