Synopsis: Carmen travels from the deserts of Mexico to Los Angeles in search of freedom.
Stars: Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, Rossy de Palma, Elsa Pataky, Corey London, Nicole da Silva, Tara Morice, Benedict Hardie, Kaan Guldur, Nico Cortez, Pip Edwards, Kevin MacIsaac
Director: Benjamin Millepied
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: You may not have seen a production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, his French four-act opera written in 1875, but you’ve likely heard part of it over time. Maybe it was while you were on hold with your insurance company, taking an elevator up a few flights to see a new dentist, or even walking around Kohl’s mid-day on a Tuesday when you needed to find a pair of khaki pants at the last minute. The music lends itself well to replication in these easy-listening settings, even if the opera is dangerous, romantic, lusty, and ultimately heartbreaking.
I was reminded recently that it had been twenty-two years since MTV premiered Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyoncé Knowles and Mekhi Phifer. Shortly after watching this new version of Carmen, I went back and skimmed a few clips from that 2002 production and was shocked at a) how Beyoncé hasn’t aged a day since it aired and b) how genuinely terrible the adaptation was, rending it nearly impossible to watch more than a few seconds at a time. This isn’t the Carmen I wanted people to experience, nor is this new version exactly the lasting impression I’d wish for people to walk away remembering either. All that being said, what’s happening in director/choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s reimagining of Carmen is uniquely cinematic, visually arresting, at times intensely flawed, and worth at least one watch.
Millepied (husband of Natalie Portman, whom he met when he choreographed her Oscar-nominated performance in Black Swan) drafts his Carmen as the story of the love between two disparate people that find each other at the peak of their emotional arcs. Carmen (Melissa Barrera, Scream VI) has just buried her mother in the Chihuahuan Desert after being murdered by members of a drug cartel that had been looking for her daughter. Without a home or family, she hears her mother’s voice in dreams urging her to cross the border into the U.S. and find Masilda (Rossy de Palma, Parallel Mothers), a childhood friend of her mom’s who owns a popular nightclub. Smuggled into the U.S. at the Texas border, Carmen’s caravan is stopped by two volunteer border agents, Mike (Benedict Hardie, The Invisible Man) and Aidan (Paul Mescal, The Lost Daughter).
Aidan is forced to make a split-second decision that sends him on the run with Carmen, fleeing into the growing daylight and over miles as they become fugitives equally in trouble with the law for different reasons. They bond as they inch closer to Masilda’s club, understanding that she can offer both of them protection from the harsh certainties of the outside world. Once arrived, the passion that has developed between them leads to a desire to build a life together, even as reality begins to creep in slowly and threatens to rip them apart. Can they shut out the world long enough to find solid ground, or will the intoxicating swirl of their surroundings lead them to disaster?
From the start, it’s clear where Millepied’s strength lies, and it’s in the visual storytelling of the piece. Aside from the dancing (we’ll get there in a second), the look of Carmen is striking and often transporting in its composition. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer (A Hidden Life) has worked closely with Millepied to catch every inch of his choreography while never losing our place in the space of the world he’s created. Along with a musical score from Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk) that builds tension with each key change, a whole picture is created that sometimes hits the eyes and ears like a freight train. This results in some dynamic moments that would look incredible on the big screen, like a pas de deux between Carmen and Aidan in the dusty desert and one of Masilda’s slinky club numbers.
If only the script were as strong as the visuals. Millepied’s concept of modernizing the story is admirable. It makes sense in context, but the execution with his co-writers Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Loïc Barrère leaves far too many holes in the story and motivations, which cripples the drama of the piece. It’s good that Barrera, Mescal, and de Palma are on board to do what they can to fill those holes, but even they can’t salvage a second half that dips significantly in energy as it drags its feet toward the climax. Any excitement I had to see the film at the beginning had vanished by the time the credits came. The biggest spark in the movie is an eye-popping number from rapper Tracy “The DOC” Curry, which hits the hardest sonically and visually.
Veering close to an experimental art film, Millepied’s Carmen sometimes skirts into pretension. This isn’t even including the trailers that announce “Benjamin Millepied’s first feature.” Honestly, how many viewers are even going to know that name? It just all feels like the announcement of a significant talent that’s good but hasn’t proven his worth yet. Carmen isn’t going to be his calling card, though it will have several sequences to feature on his highlight reel.