- Directed by Benjamin Millepied
- Written by Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Loic Barrere and Benjamin Millepied
- Starring Paul Mescal, Melissa Barrera and Rossy de Palma
- Classification N/A; 116 minutes
- Opens in select theatres May 5
Like an opera in which the performers are pumped full of steroids, the production designer tripping on acid, and every member of the orchestra playing as if there were a loaded weapon pointed in their direction, Benjamin Millepied’s extremely loose update of Georges Bizet’s Carmen is an exercise in higher-than-high ambition whose only outcome can be of the crash-and-burn variety.
For audiences unfamiliar with Bizet’s 1875 work, no worries – there is only a faint hint of Carmen’s original elements here. Which is fine, even welcome – the piece has already been adapted and updated so many times that a reimagining of its music and themes, characters and story, is no act of artistic sacrilege so much as it is one of necessity. Here, the celebrated choreographer Millepied (best known in film circles for his work on Black Swan, where he met his now-wife Natalie Portman) refashions his version of Carmen into a lovers-on-the-run melodrama that is equal parts dance epic and fever dream.
What to watch in 2023: The best movies (so far)
The film opens with the title character (Melissa Barrera) fleeing Mexico after her mother is gunned down by cartel thugs. After a disastrous border crossing, she falls into the care of the sensitive Aidan (Paul Mescal), who is reluctantly patrolling the area with ill-intentioned friends. United by an act of shocking violence, the pair quickly hit the road with the hopes of making it to California, where Carmen’s godmother (Rossy de Palma) operates a nightclub. So, yes, a departure of sorts from the original narrative, which focused on a Spanish soldier seduced by a beguiling woman, ending in tragedy. (This version ends badly, too, but for different reasons and for different characters.)
Story, though, is only a tertiary concern for Millepied, with his Carmen focused primarily on dance and music. And for good reason, as just about the only things that work here are the director’s choreography and Nicholas Brittel’s wild, thunderous score.
Yet for every dance sequence that enchants, such as a carnival-set number that is drenched in neon lights or a late-film fight-club scene in which Tracy (The D.O.C.) Curry raps over a bare-chest and -knuckle brawl, there are two more that sag when they should swirl. Surprisingly, Millepied and cinematographer Jorg Widmer too often box their subjects out of frame, so that we only see partial shots of their bodies in motion when the real treats rest in viewing the whole head-to-toe picture. And while fans of Brittel’s work on HBO’s Succession might leave the film satisfied, no amount of sonic force – which the composer provides in ample measure, as if personally tasking himself with saving the proceedings – can compensate for every other missed opportunity.
The performers mostly do their best to keep what slim characters they have been afforded from falling completely off the screen. Barrera, best known for the film adaptation of In the Heights and the latest iteration of the Scream films, has a smouldering presence that lingers. De Palma is as captivating as ever, an electric jolt that has served the Spanish actress well in her many collaborations with Pedro Almodovar. But Mescal, the Normal People and Aftersun star anointed Hollywood’s favourite new heartthrob (and for good reasons), seems profoundly lost much of the time, neither capable of the dancing required nor whatever American accent he is trying to pull off.
Carmen is a wild and unrestrained attempt to empty its director’s entire brain onto the screen, and for that it deserves recognition. But the ultimate result slips too easily between heroic effort and hot mess.