Dir: Vicente Aranda. Sp-UK-It. 125 mins
As in any of the dozens of previous film versions of Carmen, the revelation in Vicente Aranda's latest take on the classic Merimee novel (rather than the Bizet opera) is Carmen herself, played here by actress Paz Vega. After provocative turns in Julio Medem's Sex And Lucia (Lucia Y El Sexo) and the silent film-within-a-film of Pedro Almodovar's Talk To Her (Hable Con Ella), Vega gives a career-making performance as the shameless femme fatale. Buyers turned out in numbers to an early Cannes screening, possibly enticed by the backers' tag proclaiming it "the most erotic European production of the year." At Euros 10m, one of the most expensive films in Spanish history, Carmen delivers the promised eroticism and also makes a sumptuous spectacle with its plush wardrobes, masses of extras and panoramic vistas of Andalusian landscapes and architecture bathed in golden hues.
This combination of folkloric ingredients, including flamenco and bulls - all part and parcel of Merimee's original exoticising work - should only help spur sales abroad. Another recent Carmen from Spain - Carlos Saura's 1983 musical - also sold widely. Popular Argentine co-star Leonardo Sbaraglia (Intact) will help hook Latin American interest, while the UK and Italy co-produced. There is full frontal female nudity (a body double) in one scene.
Local reviews and audience turnout have been overwhelmingly positive - the film earned a whopping Euros 1.14m off 180 screens in its first weekend. Aranda's last film - Spain's 2002 nomination to the foreign-language Oscar, Mad Love (Juana La Loca), an under-$5m period drama with sexual overtones - grossed $10m (Euros8.7m) at the Spanish box office and helped launch the career of starlet Pilar Lopez de Ayala.
In both films, Aranda's interpretation of female sexuality - his favourite cinematic subject - empowers, at the same time as it flirts with burlesque. Witness the gratuitous fruit Carmen often has on hand for gnawing off juicy mouthfuls. Where Mad Love was largely confined to palace interiors, Carmen offers a varied feast for the eye crafted by a top-notch technical crew including art director Benjamin Fernandez (The Others), DP Paco Femenia (Don't Tempt Me) and costume designer Yvonne Blake (Looking For Richard).
Aranda and co-scripter Joaquin Jorda use a series of flashbacks to settle us into the action, with voiceovers alternating between author Prosper Merimee (Benedict), a French writer on a research tour through Andalusia in 1830, and a condemned Jose (Sbaraglia) offering a prison-cell confession to Merimee of his sordid fall from submissive soldier to outlaw bandit to murderer, all because of his doomed obsession for Carmen. The technique works except in a sluggish third act where Carmen and Jose join a cave-dwelling group of swashbuckling bandits, pushing the final running time to a long two hours five minutes.
Vega's charismatic performance may draw comparisons to a pre-Hollywood Penelope Cruz donning similar folkloric regalia in Fernando Trueba's The Girl Of Your Dreams (La Nina De Tus Ojos). However, foreign producers could bank on their differences. Vega flaunts an earthy sultriness and toughness in Carmen for which Cruz, who also considered the Carmen role at an early stage, is rarely cast.
Prod: Juan Alexander (Star Line)
Co-prods: Bill Chamberlain (Parallel Pictures), Roberto Di Girolamo (Planet Pictures)
Dist (Sp): Buena Vista International
Intl Sales: Kevin Williams Associates (KWA) (34) 91 747 3100
Scr: Joaquin Jorda and Vicente Aranda
DoP: Paco Femenia
Music: Jose Nieto
Ed: Teresa Font
Art dir: Benjamin Fernandez
Wardrobe: Yvonne Blake
Main cast: Paz Vega, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Jay Benedict, Antonio Dechent, Joan Crosas