Jeanne Koré Salvato

rench movies are interesting ways of thinking about French culture.  We looked at one recently, Between Two Worlds, with Juliette Binoche. An explicit theme, one that is highly valued (although not always practiced) is one of questioning oneself, se remetre en question. Here’s the link to that post.

In another recent French movie called Carmen, we are also given insights into French culture, but of a different sort.  While the movie calls to mind the opera by the famous Frenchman Bizet, the reference to Bizet’s story in this modern Carmen is only glancing.  Bizet’s Carmen is set in southern Spain, and his Carmen is a gypsy, while this modern version is set in Mexico and this modern Carmen is a tango dancer. The male heroes in both stories abandon the army; in Bizet’s opera it is the actual army, and in the modern version it is La Migra, the Border Patrol. 

READER:  I’m guessing it does not end well.  In Bizet’s Carmen, her rejected soldier stabs her to death.
ME: One thing is for certain, with a title like Carmen, you know that the story does not end well, even if you know nothing about Carmen

The modern Carmen opens with an older woman on a make-shift wooden platform in the Mexican desert performing the tango.  She is mesmerizing, a brilliant dancer.  When a killer arrives, searching for her daughter, the dancer’s performance is so compelling that the killer pauses, giving the girl a chance to escape.  I remember thinking this was a magical beginning.  The stark desert, the simple wooden platform, the older woman a true, schooled performer.  My next thought was that this was a European beginning, foregrounding the arts, and using the power of dance to carry the story, upending the stereotype of an older woman cowering in her home as the drug cartel approaches.  After the killer pauses, he remembers his mission.  He kills the dancer.

It turns out that this film is a French / Australian production, directed by a Frenchman, Benjamin Millepied, who is himself a dancer, and a choreographer. Carmen is his directorial debut.  Millepied was the choreographer for Black Swan, as well as lead dancer, and where he met his future wife, Nathalie Portman. 

Dancing Black Swan?

READER:  He was an actual ballerina?
ME:  Actual, although we don’t say ballerina for men.  Male ballet dancer is the preferred term.
READER: What are his pronouns?
ME: In France there is a fluidity that may surprise he-men and she-women. If there’s a person in the hallway, for example, that is la personne. If you want to use their pronoun, it is by definition, elle or she, since la personne is feminine. The same with la victime. If the victim lost his passport, he would be referred to as elle, since la victime is feminine.

Here are Benjamin Millepied’s views on dance, which are, in a word, that dancers can be anyone.

Millepied in the cowboy hat

“It’s this idea of the court of the monarchy and imperialism. That was the case even when I was dancing myself, and when I came to Paris Opera, and you realise you have a company of white dancers and an audience of white dancers and artists. In a city that’s anything but,” Millepied said.

“Ultimately dance is the expression of the human being… the beauty of any human being. For me, this idea that a body had to have to be one way to have this sense of transcendence or perfection — it’s just so ridiculous,” he said.

Millepied showcases dance, not only in the opening but throughout.  Filmed in New South Wales (Australia), we come to understand the power of the dance sequences, a key element of the film.   The Sydney Dance Company works with the lead actors and Millepied to realise what is referred to as “the film’s intense choreography.” In the film, dance is used as a ‘powerful tool of freedom.’ Millepied said. “I think Carmen expresses herself through dance throughout the film and she deeply knows who she is because of it as well,” Millepied said.

In the story, the girl and her partner escape the Border Patrol and make their way to LA.  There, she finds her mother’s friend, another dancer.  She finds safety and dance, but only temporarily.  The way that dance is woven into the story is a tribute to the power of dance as a counterweight to this terrible violence that people experience as they flee Mexico, a violence that not only takes place in Mexico.

It is inescapable the violence happening in Israel and Gaza. Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, recently gave an impassioned speech about the terror recently perpetrated against Israel by Hamas.  He also begged the international community to remember that the displaced Palestinians are facing horrific conditions.  Over half of those suffering in Gaza are children, he reminded us.

One reason I chose to talk about Carmen was so that we could spend a moment reflecting not only on dance, but also on the violence, particularly right now in the Middle East.  What can we do?  There are those of us who pray.  Others wonder what is it in human kind that can take this vicious route?  Finally, financial donations are being fervently sought. Please consider giving to a charity of your choice to help. People have referred me to Médecins Sans Frontiers, who supply medical help; Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, responding to children’s needs in Gaza, and World Central Kitchen, supplying food in Israel, Gaza, and Egypt. I’m sure there are others.

In the play the drama between Pozzo, who holds Lucky on a leash as his slave, is a far cry from the witty repartee of the two vagabonds. The violence in the way that Pozzo is treating Lucky seems necessary to give as full a picture as possible of the human condition.  Pozzo says of himself, “I am perhaps not particularly human, but who cares?” 

I ask myself what he means by not being particularly human. And I answer myself by way of a vocabulary text, of all things.  I once taught a series of vocabulary words to help students respond more fully to literary texts.  One word was “compassion,” and the definition was “the highest attribute of the human being.”  I thought it was amazing that this definition would show up in a dry vocabulary book.  If compassion makes us essentially human, then what makes us non-human?  And it seems that Beckett’s play suggests that it is cruelty.  And what can be more cruel than atrocities in war?

Vladimir wonders if Pozzo wants to get rid of Lucky.  And Pozzo says this: “Remark that I might just as well have been in his shoes and he in mine.  If chance had not will otherwise.”

Even in the mouth of the non-human we have the seeds of compassion.  How easily our roles may have been reversed.  If I am not mistaken, the next logical step is to help one another.

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