Carmen (1915)

carmen review

Carmen (1915) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

An early Cecil B. DeMille that anticipates the epic scope that his biblical films would have throughout his career. Epic not in length, but epic in its melodramatic construction. Personally not my favorite of his silent period, but it still manages to articulate a persuasive dramaturgy that quickly traps me in its sensationalist enchantment. In Carmen’s operatic atmosphere, there is an incandescent perversity that comes into precise contact with DeMille’s visual grandiloquence, generating an immersive theatricality in its suggestive storytelling and a cinematic visual order that converges despite its ontological dichotomy. Daringly, the erotic romanticism of this melodrama based on the 1845 novel of the same name written by Prosper Mérimée is diversified with a staging that suggests something more tastefully filmic than theatrical; and something that very few have realized is that Cecil B. DeMille was one of the first Hollywood directors to revolutionize dramatic aesthetics in film staging. In the rhapsodic elegance of Carmen, the driving force of its effusive sensuality comes dynamically from chaos and order, from a mise en scène that conflates both contrasts in vibrant spaces and itinerant characters, z-axis movements that give a sense of three-dimensionality and depth, but above all a harmonious beauty within the framing where DeMille exploits the audacity of his lead character, an empowered, actively salacious and lethal Geraldine Farrar as the manipulative Carmen. Don Jose, played by Wallace Reid, is an officer of the law who falls under the carnal temptations of Carmen, a gypsy girl, who maliciously seduces the officer in order to make it easier for his band of smugglers to pass through an entrance that requires registration. The plot in the hands of a filmmaker like DeMille falls into the conventional and sentimentally vacuous, that is typical of him, yet no one comes to the films of this turgid director to appreciate a well-told story, one comes for the scandal, for the feast of extravagance, and for the lust, all wrapped up in a seemingly sophisticated art. Stylistically it is not the best of his collaboration with pioneering producer Jesse L. Lasky, perhaps the strongest contender for that would be The Cheat (1915), yet what is overtly apparent here is an appealing cinematic populism that manages to coax even the most skeptical audience, myself included.

Matteo Bedon
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When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.