Antonio (Antonio Gades) is a choreographer planning his next big show, which is to stage a flamenco version of Bizet's classic opera Carmen, but he's having trouble finding the right lead for the project: who can sum up all the passions and contradictions of the role and convey them in dance as well? Casting sessions come and go and still his search is fruitless, that is until he attends a flamenco class and notices one pupil arriving late, and when he hears her name is Carmen (Laura del Sol) a lighbulb goes on above his head and he thinks he might have made a discovery. He watches her go through her routines, then after the class is over they are introduced, not knowing this will be a fateful meeting for them both...
For some reason around this time in the mid-nineteen-eighties the story of Carmen, whether based on the original novel or taken from the more celebrated opera, was the subject of three European movies, this one, Jean-Luc Godard's characteristically offbeat version First Name: Carmen, and Francesco Rosi's more conventional telling with most of Bizet's music intact. The music was heard here as well, but director Carlos Saura used it in a different way, certainly it was danced to but mostly heard as recordings on the soundtrack and in one instance actively sent up as the performers host their own spoof bullfight.
In the main, Saura was respectful, but preferred to head off in his own directions, mixing in aspects of the famous story of jealousy and murder to a more realistic variation on what went on behind the scenes when putting on a flamenco show. Curiously, we never got to see the final result, so while there were scenes where some dancers were in costume, and others where we were offered an idea of how the actual performance would look, Saura was more keen on combining the two narratives so, for example, there would be a sequence which started naturally, say a card game, then it would transform into a routine with the assembled hoofing around in a smooth transition from one fiction to another.
By the end, we're not even sure if the troupe are certain of what it real and what is part of the opera, which does have the drama building to an anticlimax with much the same ending as the original, yet somehow less convincing as we are never wholly buying into the idea that Antonio's obsession with the performance would lead him to adopt the role of the male romantic lead in real life as well. Except that of course, none of this is real life, and there's a postmodern air to much of what is played out which could have been tricksy but in effect tends towards the melodramatic. If it was the dancing you were here for, you would not be let down, Saura had a very musical sensibility and that was exhibited in works such as these: some link Carmen as the middle section of a flamenco trilogy from the director.
Famed Spanish dancer Antonio Gades demonstrated why he was as renowned as he was, and newcomer Laura del Sol (perhaps best known internationally as the hostage in cult gangster movie The Hit) kept up with him admirably, though the parts where they had to act out their affair dragged a little too much than intended, not that it was too long between the musical numbers, but that was what we were here for, nonetheless. Saura experimented with the audience's expectations as there were assuredly moments which were traditional in their staging, some performers even dressed up in the kind of clobber you'd most associate with flamenco (only one instance of mass castanet clicking, however), whereas at other times his cast would just be wearing their rehearsal clothes, and you could tell it was 1983 by the sheer plethora of legwarmers on the female dancers. By dissecting the process of staging Carmen this really fell between two stools, pulled alternately to a scientific examination of the creativity involved, and presenting a Carmenesque, torrid love story. Music by Paco de Lucía.