Credited as a reimagining of Bizet’s four-act opera of the same name, Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen is the story of a woman on the run (West Side Story’s Melissa Barrera) following the murder of her mother by the cartel and a separate murder of those seeking refuge in front of her.
In his directorial debut, Millepied stages a feverish and surreal journey for Carmen. Marked with alluring cinematography from Jörg Widmer, Barrera, and co-star Paul Mescal as Aiden, an ex-American military operator with PTSD, dance their way through the vivid opera.
Barrera’s choreographed movements are stunning, and the actress represents that portion of the character well. The difficulty with the character is that, although she is the film’s subject, the character also feels disconnected from the surreal world Millepied painted. The screenplay was adapted from Bizet’s Carmen by Millepied, Loic Barrère, and Alexander Dinelaris. Jr uses Mescal’s Aiden as the figurehead. Perhaps Mescal is the stronger of the two actors in terms of personality. Still, the characters are not presented as such – both struggle for differing reasons and cross paths at the wrong time and under dire circumstances.
To clarify, this is Carmen’s story. The journey starts and ends with her being isolated. During the dance numbers, Barrera is strong, her movements graceful, a credit to Millepied’s choreography background, for which he won an Academy Award for Black Swan. Those movements add to the surreal nature of Bizet’s opera. The static nature of Mescal’s Aiden is a transition from Carmen as a central character to Aiden’s having to face his past by addressing his future and the drama that ensues where Carmen isn’t as strong as it should be.
That isn’t to say that Mescal’s performance as a PTSD and guilt-riddled character isn’t worth watching; it is very much the opposite as he continues to build on the character strengths and acting abilities he exhibited in 2022’s Aftersun. After both witness accidental murders of immigrants attempting to cross the Mexican-United States border, they are on the run from an overindulgent Border Patrol officer. Their journey takes them to Los Angeles, where they hide at Masilda’s (Rossy de Palma), a refuge for those seeking shelter.
Millepied does establish a connection between the three central characters, other than happenstance. The link is more visual than through dialog, though the dialogue is peppered throughout. A mystique exists within Masilda, connected explicitly to Carmen and her mother. The mental interconnectedness between the three characters is Carmen’s strength, visually rather than through characterizations, giving the movie its hyperrealist feeling.
As with any opera, music is vital in conveying emotion, and in this arena, Nicholas Britell soars. His music opens the hyperrealist feeling beyond what the cinematography achieves. Together, they draw you in, only to be pulled out by a modern rap-dance number toward the latter half of the second act.
Carmen is the type of film that opera lovers should be drawn into. The score and the visuals capture the essence of a hyperrealist feeling and convey it as such. Melissa Barrera glides her way through the musical numbers, and Paul Mescal’s strength of character is a highlight. However, the balance between the characterizations, the music, and the story doesn’t hold, pulling you out of the trance before drawing you back in.
Directed by Benjamin Millepied
Screenplay by Alexander Dinelaris and Loic Barrère & Benjamin Millepied
Story by Benjamin Millepied, Loic Barrère
Starring Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, Rossy de Palma, Tracy “The DOC” Curry
R, 116 mins, Sony Pictures Classics