New Films 






Aleksandr Khvan: Carmen (Karmen) (2003)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova©2003

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.

Indeed, while Sergei’s obsession with the girl is his road to self-destruction, the viewer is left with the feeling that there isn’t much for him to lose. Sergei describes himself as a good cop who used to be a useful cog in the machine of the state. Echoing him, Carmen plays with the two meanings of the word dolg in Russian: duty and debt. To Sergei’s rhetorical question "Don’t you understand what duty is?" she replies, "Sure, you should pay your debts. I just don’t understand what it is you owe them." Carmen, in fact, claims affinity with Sergei because they are both orphans—a claim which is neither confirmed nor refuted in the film. The theme of orphanhood is quite relevant to the narrative. Carmen, Sergei, and their buddies are rootless and lonely rather than free. Carmen’s gypsy and Tartar connections do not introduce ethnic diversity, as much as they underline the fragmentation of the community.

All this said, Carmen is indeed a story of love and freedom. What truly conveys the sense of romantic yearning is the landscape. Set on the seashore in Crimea, the film features some artistically constructed shots. The choice of location harks back to Lermontov’s Taman and Gorkii’s Chelkash. The sea, the road, Crimean mountains, and local villages provide both a romantic ambience for the characters and a counterpoint to the violence that dominates the film’s plot.

Like Lermontov’s Undina, Carmen seems to get her strength and defiance from nature. Albeit quite stereotypical, this glorification of women’s "natural" power and freedom might explain a rather puzzling epigraph, "Dedicated to my mother" that appears at the film’s end.

Кармен [Carmen]

Russia, 2003. 108 min. Color

Director: Aleksandr Khvan

Script: Iurii Korotkov | Camera: Igor' Kozhevnikov | Art Director: Vladimir Kartashov | Music: Gennadii Gladkov

Starring: Ol'ga Filippova, Igor' Petrenko, Iaroslav Boiko, Ramil Sabitov

Production: Sergei Chliiants; Pygmalion Film Company

Aleksandr Khvan: Carmen (Karmen) (2003)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova ©2003