In the 1934 film One Night of Love, Tullio Carminati tells Grace Moore that he’s going to star her in Carmen, in large part because, “For once I’d like to see a Carmen who weighed less than the bull.” In this same spirit, one suspects that the opera impresario played by Carminati would have approved of Julia Migenes’ Carmen in Francesco Rosi’s Carmen (1984). Not only is Migenes a reasonably svelte lead, but she has the role’s required sexuality. It’s all too often forgotten—in the rush to proclaim opera a cultural experience—that both Bizet’s opera and even more the original Prosper Mérimée novella on which it’s based, are essentially overheated pulp fiction that wouldn’t be badly suited as the basis for an Almodóvar movie. We are after all talking about the cheerfully amoral gypsy girl who seems to exist mostly to inflame the passions of hapless men. In Migenes we have a Carmen who makes even her day job—rolling cigars on her inner thigh—look sensual, and one who has a true chemistry with her Don Jose (Plácido Domingo).
The combination of the casting and Bizet’s music (there are probably more recognizable tunes in Carmen than in just about any opera I can think of) ought to make for the perfect opera film, but it doesn’t quite. Whatever his other strengths as a filmmaker, Rosi seems only occasionally to have a real feeling for the music from a filmmaking standpoint. His staging of the opera is fine—the performances are natural and appealing—but all too often his camera just sits back and blandly takes in the action, and sometimes simply wanders around the action aimlessly. The results are still the best film of Carmen out there, but it’s a film that hardly qualifies as definitive. Maybe letting Almodóvar take a crack at the material isn’t such a bad idea.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke