First Name: Carmen (1983)

Review #1,515

Director:  Jean-Luc Godard
Cast:  Maruschka Detmers, Jacques BonnaffĂ©, Myriem Roussel
Plot:  Carmen is a member of a terrorist gang who falls in love with a young police officer guarding a bank that she and her cohorts try to rob.  She leads him on while dragging the two of them closer to their ultimate doom.

Genre:  Drama / Crime
Awards:  Won Golden Lion & Technical Prize (Venice)
Runtime:  85 mins
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be R21 for explicit nudity and sexuality)
Source:  Studiocanal

“When shit's worth money, the poor won't have assholes.”

Make what you will about First Name: Carmen, but Jean-Luc Godard’s 1983 Venice Golden Lion winner is very much the product of a filmmaker who has been past his prime (he never captured the whirlwind success of his slate of iconic movies from the 1960s), yet it is also a work of a respected artist still trying to find new ways to tell stories.  

First Name: Carmen centers on the titular character, played with seductive grace by Maruschka Detmers, who spends extended periods of the film in the buff.  Detmers’s performance is a standout; so is her opposite number Jacques Bonnaffe, who plays Joseph, a snobbish police officer guarding a bank.  

Carmen attempts a bank robbery with her friends, and plans to hide out in an apartment loaned by her uncle (played with lecherous intent by Godard himself), a filmmaker who has lost his mojo and feigns illness to stay (comfortably) in a sanatorium.  While Godard provides a measure of meta-filmic quality to First Name: Carmen, it is the treacherous if erotic relationship between Carmen and Joseph that is the heartbeat of the film.  

Their first encounter in the aforesaid bank, a meeting of violence and lust, is one of the film’s many surreal moments—the people caught in the carnage seem to be oblivious to what is happening around them. 

While Godard’s film doesn’t quite work narratively—there’s no real plot to drive the story forward, nor is there a strong reason for the lead characters to exist (except to serve the director’s highly-experimental work)—it is the fragmentary melding of music, sound design and evocative imagery (lensed by the great Raoul Coutard, Godard’s long-time cinematographer) that is most intriguing.  

Intercutting Carmen and Joseph’s scenes with a quartet of string musicians practicing in a room, the film benefits from a classy ‘score’ by Beethoven, whose diegetic music frequently permeates across different settings as non-diegetic.  The experimentations by the musicians as they arrange and re-arrange the same music echo Godard’s approach of repetition.  

After a while, you feel that there is a pattern to the director’s madness.  A montage here, a musical interlude there.  A sense of dissonance here, a sense of layered bliss there.  Still, it can be difficult to appreciate the film.  And even if it all seems art-housey pretentious, including the sex and nudity, not to mention one outrageous unsimulated masturbation scene, Godard’s attempt to tell the story of Bizet’s “Carmen”, however loosely, doesn’t miss the mark completely.

Verdict:  Godard’s Venice Golden Lion winner doesn’t quite work narratively, but its fragmentary melding of music, sound design and images is an interesting experiment.



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