Sunday, 29 August 2010

Lubitsch's Carmen - Gypsy Blood

Another version of Carmen, this time the 1921 film directed by Ernst Lubitsch which became a huge hit in the US and paved the way for his Hollywood career. Gypsy Blood is the title, but it's a fairly straightforward account of the Prosper Mérimée novel. Bizet at least injects colour, flamboyance and good tunes. In comparison, Lubitsch can't compete for thrills.

Gypsy Blood made Pola Negri a megastar.  Polish girl finds fame as Basque gypsy in French novel  as German made movie repackaged for the US! Modern Times, we'd say, with deliberate reference to Charlie Chaplin, one of Negri's lovers, who also made a take-off of Carmen in 1918. Watch Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen in full download . You can see why Lubitsch's version was an improvement. And it makes you appreciate the much greater sophistication of  Rex Ingrams's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, also 1921. Ingrams is making an art movie with political kick, not just a pot booiler.

Carmen is intriguing because she's a symbol of womanhood completely outside convention. Lethal termptresses are a primeval archetype - Eve in the Bible, and before her, Sumerian goddesses with wings and bisexual characteristics. Mérimée's Carmen caught the imagination because she overturned 19th century propriety. Mérimée draws a cultural safety net around her by emphasizing her ethnicity. Gypsies were supposed to be uncivilized creatures, or as Hitler would say, irredeemable Untermensch. Real Roma are right to be offended by Gypsy Blood.

Ironically, Mérimée came across the story via a Parisian socialite, but he wasn't being racist so much as fascinated by alternatives to mainstrean western European culture. Carmen, like Zuleika in Goethe or  Isolde in Wagner, represents new possibilities with ancient antecendents. Carmen, though, breaks basic moral rules. She smokes, she drinks, she lusts, she does crime. Carmen in the 1920's gave legitimacy to millions of New Women, who smoked, drank, danced, and lusted like she, though most didn't cross ethical boundaries.

Lubitsch's Gypsy Blood is crude even by film making standards of the time. Negri's exaggerated kiss curls are so ludicrous that maybe the film's reminding us it's farce. Film techniques then were primitive  hence the cartoon-like makeup and overdone gestures. But even by the standards of the time this semaphore acting isn't even trying to be realistic.

Please read other posts here on Carmen - Chaplin, Bizet, the new ROH 3D film and the Chinese Carmen, Grace Chang (Ge Lan), whose film Wild, Wild Rose is one of the finest developments of all (barring Bizet). I've written a lot on Chinese film and its part in modernization, and have given FULL downloads too. Carmen isn't necessarily a "bad girl" but a personality adapting to rapidly shifting social mores. That's why she's such a potent symbol.

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