Killing Carmen: Thoughts on a Classic
I’m lucky. It has never been a requirement of mine that I like or even particularly admire anyone in order to find them fascinating enough to want to watch or read about. This is true of fictional as well as historical (or even currently alive) persons.
I think somehow many of us feel “guilty” for watching things like Carmen, because we’re preoccupying ourselves with a central character possessing so little (if anything) which we may deem redeemable. But Carmen is fascinating. Like many other colorful criminals or outcasts of society we can be fascinated, even mesmerized by the way they work and live.
Carmen lends herself to a wide variety of interpretations, and while a lot of folk seem to view her as being some archetypal character (in the Jungian sense), I don’t. I see her less as symbol and more as genuine and real for, certainly, while she may be a little over-the-top, nothing she does is so much so as to become unbelievable. But the symbolic stuff (which I love) lends much to our enjoyment - even if we possibly don't understand it or agree on what it means.
When we meet Carmen she’s working the cigarette factory – she likes to sing and dance. She likes to fight. She’s a spicy girl. She gets in a bit of trouble. She’s a criminal from the beginning. I have always seen the Habanera as basically Carmen’s getting a lay of the land, scoping out a way out of future trouble. Immediately she identifies Jose as someone she can use, trick and manipulate into whatever she needs. I’ve always thought the factory fight and her subsequent escape – with Jose’s aid –merely a preliminary and easy exercise to test her hold on him. (And don’t tell me Carmen isn’t always looking ahead to the future and seeing trouble in it or that she’s as “care free” as she pretends – there are reasons she consults and holds stock in the tarot.) Anyone who falls for the love story part of their relationship is, I think, buying into something that really isn’t there and thus, like Jose, has been seduced.
Carmen is also, in my estimation, a criminal who, like so many adrenaline junkies must necessarily keep moving on to bigger things to feed the addiction. The adrenaline “rush” which comes from criminal activity can certainly be experienced through other (natural) means such as athletics (including risk taking things such as cliff diving, or parachuting) and through sex. Those truly addicted to that rush push themselves further and further sometimes to the point of their demise – which is exactly what happens to our “heroine.”
Carmen’s attraction to Escamillo is instant because here is an Übermensch – a human male who wins to the death battles (albeit advantaged through both superior intelligence and artificial weaponry) with the most powerful animal – another male from another species. A man, who, like Carmen, has no natural fear of death. In this regard, as exciting as it sounds, winning the bullfight would have to become only the penultimate orgasmic experience, the ultimate only being possible in death itself.
Carmen, too, must sense this same thing for she pretty much self orchestrates her “orgasme final” with the long-ago selected Jose her chosen executioner. Taunting, humiliating him she increases the element of danger and violence to the point where physically and psychologically they are well past fever pitch and at blistering point of no return with nothing left to do but what she set out for them to. That Carmen often used sex to get everything she “wants” I find it symbolically interesting (as well as more than just a bit disturbing) her demise is met by: (a) the violent plunging of a dagger into her; and (b) outside of a bull (male) arena.
Carmen never asks to be liked, but like a pretty, poisonous spider she lures us into thinking she may have something “pretty” to offer. But she doesn’t. She (like the music Bizet gives her) is a façade. What she really offers is a bloody, violent, unromantic, irredeemable, look at part of our baser nature. No, not pretty. But pretty fascinating
(Photos: Kate Aldrich as Carmen/Jonas Kaufmann and Richard Troxell as Jose).