Director: Aleksandr Khvan
Writers: Yuriy Korotkov, Prosper Mérimée
Stars: Igor Petrenko, Olga Filippova,Yaroslav Boyko
Grand prix du Festival "L'automne de l'Amour", 2003
Fascinating, non-musical post-Soviet spin on what must rank after "Romeo and Juliet" as the most oft-adapted literary text in cinema, Alexander Khvan's "Carmen" expertly meshes political and psychological destiny in a well-paced crime thriller. Cerebral rather than impassioned, pic is told from the point of view of Sergei (Igor Petrenko), the fallen Don Jose character, who fatalistically describes his waterloo to his defense attorney, step by step. Pic, which performed rather indifferently in Russia after Khvan's record-breaking 1992 "Douba-Douba," may stand as too much of a generic hybrid for American tastes.
Khvan maintains a nice balance of the familiar and the unexpected, with an astute attention to detail. Thus the traditional opening scene in a prison tobacco factory links the serried rows of cigarettes to the regimentation of the women and formations of the guards, without sacrificing the titillating spectacle of Carmen's fiery catfight. ...
The director, Aleksandr Khvan (b. in 1957, graduated from the VGIK workshop of Lev Kulidzhanov and Tat'iana Lioznova in 1980) achieved critical acclaim as a "stylish" director with such films as Diuba-Diuba (1992) and a short, The Wedding March, in the anthology, The Arrival of the Train (1995). His latest film, Carmen, is a post-Soviet rendition of Prosper Merimée’s famous novella about the obsessive love of a soldier for an adventurous gypsy girl. In Khvan’s version, a young Russian policeman who guards female prisoners becomes captivated by one, allows her to escape, and becomes her lover and accomplice in many crimes. After killing several of her lovers, unable to tolerate her indifference, he shoots her.
Contrary to the Russian cinematic tradition, which values literary sources, Merimée is not mentioned in the film’s credits. In his interview, Khvan says that he also objected to using Bizet’s music in the film, because as much as the story is eternal, for his heroes everything is happening for the first time. Khvan adapts the story of love, obsession, and a yearning for freedom to the post-Soviet environment—and post-Soviet values. His femme fatale lacks the passion and allure of both the literary and the operatic prototype; instead she is practical and manipulative. Her appearance, which changes several times throughout the film, is that of a model, not a gypsy varmint. This comes as no surprise because Ol’ga Filippova, who plays Carmen, is the "commercial face" of the Sukhoi corporation, which manufactures fighter planes. The post-Soviet Don Jose (Sergei), once he abandons his police uniform, is visually a replica of the many post-Soviet cinematic gangsters: crew cut, leather jacket, superior fighting skills. The crimes Carmen’s gang commits are also "adjusted" to the new Russia: smuggling of drugs, robbery of an Intourist bus, burglary at the room of a foreign businessman whom Carmen had also hustled for money. To complete the picture, the flashy Western cars that the heroes recklessly drive contribute to the sense of uncontrollable desire and freedom that the film sets out to create.
By its genre, Carmen is a hybrid of a gangster film, a road movie, and a male version of 9 1/2 Weeks. The familiar plot is complicated by the flashback structure of the film: in the film’s present, the hero is facing life in prison and tells his story to an attorney, whom he calls "doctor." Similar to Aleksei Balabanov’s War, Carmen uses the framing narrative and the oppressive mise-en-scène of the prison cell to provide a meaning to the fragmented past. Sergei’s voice-over narration describes his emotional and psychological state: his growing jealousy, his loss of touch with reality, and his indifference to both his own and other people’s lives. In the film’s diegesis, however, he alternates between alcohol-intensified fits of jealousy that inevitably end in his killing the competitor and being on the run after a heist or robbery, ending in violent and joyless sex. Inebriation, death, and physical love not only summarize the hero’s past year, but also seem to exhaust the options open to him.
Elena Prokhorova in KinoKultura