CARMEN Review: Opera Tale Reimagined As Immigration Drama

Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal sing and dance in choreographer-turned-director Benjamin Millepied's debut feature.

Contributing Writer; New Jersey, USA (@fuzzyyarns)
CARMEN Review: Opera Tale Reimagined As Immigration Drama
Watching any number of feature directorial debuts, film direction might seem to be a mystical, ethereal art, full of symbolism and an artist’s je ne sais quoi (using a phrase from dancer-turned-director Benjamin Millepied’s native France), something to be explained with a lot of gesturing and hand waving.
Or at least that is what it seems like most debut directors think. Instead, it is mostly a very practical, logistical skill, constituting narration of a story with economy and coherence. 
Millepied’s musical drama Carmen, ostensibly an adaptation of the same story that inspired Georges Bizet’s immortal opera and countless other screen and stage versions, bears little resemblance to it. Nevertheless, the credits list both Prosper Mérimée’s original French novella and Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem The Gypsies as source material. The credits also cite Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's libretto, although Nicholas Britell’s score is entirely new.
The original famous tale is one of a fiery and doomed seductress who drives several hard men to their destruction with her wily ways. Opera plots are famously whack and outrageous and 
perhaps Millepied felt a modern audience might not be amenable to a straight retelling. Maybe some additional substance and grounding was needed to bring it in line with modern sensibilities.
He’s swung too far in the other direction because his Carmen is now a tale of undocumented immigration into the United States, border politics, and criminal cartels. Those looking for hot, sexy people being horny and slutty need look elsewhere. Name the film anything other than Carmen and no one would guess it had the barest connection to Bizet’s opera.
Carmen, unfortunately, doesn’t have the heft to serve the weighty subjects it is trying to address and comes across as a frivolous take on serious issues while simultaneously being unsatisfying as a musical too. Millepied, in trying to do too much, has done too little for his dual ambitions, and bungled both. 
The main storyline concerns a young Mexican woman, Carmen, who enters the United States through a tunnel under the southern border wall in California, with the help of a human trafficker. Her travelling group falls into the crosshairs of an American vigilante group that hunts undocumented Mexicans for sport.
Carmen, about to be killed, is unexpectedly saved by Aidan, a reluctant vigilante, who impulsively shoots his partner dead to save Carmen. Carmen and Aiden then flee to Los Angeles to outrun the incident.
Right from the beginning, Millepied strikes a doomy, portentous tone, promising a devastating tragedy about fate and a grand romance that will not succeed. Not dissimilar, if you will, to how Baz Luhrman opened his Moulin Rouge! Whereas that film delivered in spades upon the promise of its opening, achieving exhilarating heart-break, Millepied disappoints with an overlong, limp slog entirely bereft of feeling. Crucially, the central romance between Carmen and Aidan fails to spark, depriving the film of any rooting interest or stakes, as you never believe these people are inflamed enough with passion or desire to carry out the actions that they do.
Millepied certainly hired actors who were up to the job at hand. Melissa Barrera is a breakout talent, having already toplined two recent Scream movies to box office success, along with a starring role in the high-profile musical In The Heights. Current internet boyfriend Paul Mescal is an even bigger star in the making with an Emmy nomination for Normal People and Oscar nomination for Aftersun in the bag and the lead role in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator sequel on the horizon.
Both turn in unshaded, dimensionless work, the script failing to provide them with any foundation upon which to build their characters. Both are young, hot stars but even their sex scene, despite nudity on show, is sterile and cold. Pedro Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma is the only one who delivers an engaging performance as Carmen’s long-lost aunt in Los Angeles.
Millepied assembled a crack team behind the camera too. though the talent involved doesn’t reflect the end product. Contributing to the script is Birdman’s Oscar-winning writer Alexander Dinelaris Jr. but you wouldn’t know that with the vague, unfocused manner in which the story plays out. The film is lensed by Terrence Malick’s cinematographer Jörg Widmer and Carmen is often stunning to look at, though the overuse of a pirouetting steadicam is vertiginous and overcompensates for the generally unimaginative mise-en-scène. 
How about the singing and dancing, all important in a musical? Here too the film underplays its hand. There are only two or three actual songs to speak of, and as if afraid of having characters “burst into song”, Millepied portrays all the singing in Carmen as strictly digetic, meaning you scrupulously see the musicians playing the music in the background. Barrera and Mescal sing their single brief songs creditably enough. The dancing is a different matter altogether.
Carmen is closer to a ballet than a musical in the sense that there is far more dancing than singing. The dancing is passable -- Millepied is a choreographer first and foremost -- but indistinct from anything you’d see on Dancing with the Stars. Barrera dances quite a bit and acquits herself well.
Mescal though seems more comfortable being a lumbering, ripped, shirtless boxer. He dances only once, briefly, right at the end and it seems as though he learned his moves a second before the director called action. Oscar-nominated Britell supplies the choir-heavy music. While there are a couple of decent melodies in there, you won’t walk out humming any due to the same-y feel to much of the score.
Millepied employs all manner of contrivances to tell his flimsy story: metaphysical interjections, dream sequences, chronological jumbling and overwrought cross-cutting. But a more rigorous commitment to economy and coherence would have served Carmen better.
Carmen premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and is being released in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics. It is now playing in Toronto movie theaters and will soon open in Vancouver.
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AustraliaBenjamin MillepiedCarmenFranceMelissa BarreraPaul MescalRossy de PalmaUS

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