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.
Scripter Yuri Korotkov hardly need update the story, which fits the current situation in Russia like a glove. Hero’s trajectory — the move from cop to robber — looks believable in this setting. At home with the old regime, Sergei seeks orderliness, finding his center through obedience to duty. His encounter with the amoral, anarchic, imaginative Carmen (Olga Filippova) turns his life upside-down. Pathological jealousy and murderous possessiveness soon findhim totally dependent on Carmen, she substituting for the authority of the state in determining every aspect of his life.
As incarnated by model Filippova, Carmen is a contempo figure, a woman not of instinct but of fierce enterprise, extraordinarily sharp in situational ways, comprehending everything from new computer systems to the latest Paris fashions. Carmen seduces via her ability to genuinely relate, hooking up with people’s zeitgeists and intimate desires and then using them to further her own ends.
Her “toreador,” whose role in the film is greatly reduced from his stature in the original text, is a motorcycle racer, and it is clear that she would rather ride his bike than him.
Capitalist to her fingertips, she craves the thrill of figuring out how to make things pay off and, like her many predecessors, is fickle not out of shallowness but because stasis represents for her a form of death. Constantly changing her appearance, racing from hideout to hideout, she thrives on the rootless freedom that Sergei finds so enervating.
Sergei’s and Carmen’s violent lovemaking lies somewhere between aggression and desperation, much like their larceny. Khvan is good at capturing the nervous exhilaration of the very different robberies that Carmen’s gang pulls off.
Tech credits are pro. Gennady Gladkov’s fully orchestrated score scrupulously avoids Bizet while keeping up with pic’s tonal variations. Courtesy of Igor Kozhevnikov’s luminous widescreen lensing, the Crimea seascapes provide further vivid representations of the freedom Sergei that doesn’t know how to deal with.