Carmen opens in theaters on April 21, 2023.
Benjamin Millepied’s feature debut Carmen, a desert musical romance, is a disappointingly plain movie made even more disappointing next to the lavishness of its source material. It’s based loosely on Georges Bizet’s world-famous 1875 opera of the same name – even if you’ve never seen it performed, you’re likely familiar with its instantly recognizable solo, “Habanera/L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” – though the movie has oddly little in common with the show. That it discards nearly all elements of Bizet’s work isn’t a problem in and of itself, but what becomes quickly and pervadingly troublesome is that Millepied and co-writers Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Loïc Barrère don’t replace the original’s heart and soul with anything original or imaginative.
The filmmakers transpose the original story – about a soldier falling for a fierce Romani woman in 1820s Spain – to the southern U.S. border, where a young Mexican woman, Carmen (Melissa Barrera), flees the violence of her hometown and makes her way to the United States and becomes entangled with a former U.S. Marine, Aidan (Paul Mescal). The new premise provides ample opportunity for modern political commentary, though while the backdrop is effectively expressed through the rugged, dusty atmosphere and scorching visual tone, it settles skin-deep, rarely impacting the characters on a gut level.
In keeping with the tonal effectiveness, a deadly shootout offers hair-raising (if temporary) chills as bullets rip through the night air, sending them both on the run, evading the law hand-in-hand in the vein of a modern Bonnie and Clyde, albeit without the allure or the moral complications. Along the way, a handful of brief musical detours unfold, each more fluid and dreamlike than the last – though despite providing occasional visual splendor these have little bearing on either character or the story at hand.
While these encounters are presented with panache, they also speak to the half-hearted nature of Millepied’s adaptation. Carmen is a musical in name only; it features scattered scenes of abstract dance, though rarely do these result in song, leading to few moments of genuine emotion. The movie hits the pause button on its plot so the characters can re-perform existing story ideas through interpretive dance, but without fully using movement to express who they are or the anxieties they face along their journey. Then again, even if they were afforded the luxury of revealing themselves through song, it’s hard to imagine either character leaving an impact, despite the caliber each performer has shown in previous films (Barrera in the musical In The Heights, and Mescal in his Oscar-nominated performance in Aftersun).
The leading couple is so straightforward as to be largely inert. Carmen is defined less by her traumatic past and more by her suspicions of Aidan, as a stranger with whom she’s sure to develop a romantic spark because the story’s destination demands it, even if the journey hardly develops it. Aidan, on the other hand, is given at least partial dimension before he meets Carmen, in that his PTSD is referenced and he appears to be in search of purpose. However, once both characters set out together, any notions of tragedy disappear so the movie can make room for its one-note, will-they-won’t-they romance, rather than letting the tragic and the romantic bloom side by side and inform each other in complex ways. Why make them dance when they have no withheld anguish they desperately wish to express?
If the actors are wasted, the composer is wasted even more so. Nicholas Britell, responsible for the music in films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, and shows like The Underground Railroad, Andor, and Succession, is already a generation-defining talent, but there’s seldom a moment where his score here finds an image worth enhancing with a recurring theme, or an idea worth exploring through melody. Millepied’s camera (with the help of cinematographer Jörg Widmer) is at least adept at capturing the vastness of the desert landscape and making it feel dangerous. But the moment his lens falls on a human body or face it loses its sense of perspective, both physical and emotional.
The film isn’t entirely lacking in moments of raw, operatic expression, but they’re so few and far between, and so un-connected to Carmen and Aidan, that it’s hard not to wonder if the leading duo belong to a different move (perhaps a realist work by a filmmaker capable of magnifying theirs subdued emotions). The opening scene sees a woman dancing defiantly in the face of certain death, though once Carmen enters the picture, she fails to inherit this penchant for movement and musicality.
Another sequence, in which U.S. Border Patrol agents are joined by a civilian militia – part of the domino effect that leads to Carmen and Aidan meeting – verges on capturing the kind of twisted aggression that, in theory, might fuel a story about a migrant woman sent for the hills by racism and bloodlust. However, despite Aidan’s reluctant involvement with these characters, he’s presented as pure of heart and without complication; the hurdles to his romance with Carmen are entirely external, and they exist mostly as specters off-screen.
If the cast has one saving grace, it’s Rossy De Palma as the enigmatic nightclub owner Masilda, a minor character with whom the duo seek refuge. Despite her limited screen time, the Spanish actress provides not only a sense of matriarchal embrace with her dialogue, but a depth of wisdom and understanding when she becomes the focus of her own musical interludes. The glimmer in her eye is magical, if only because it conjures the illusion that Carmen may blossom into a movie in which love and pain might, no matter how briefly, find keen and heartfelt expression through dance. Unfortunately, this promise never comes to fruition.