‘Carmen’ Review: We’re Not in Spain Anymore

The choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s directing debut is an of-the-moment but scattered take on a classic love story.

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By Joshua Barone

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You can’t have “Carmen” without the color red.

In the choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s debut film — an adaptation of the classic story, previously told in prose by Prosper Mérrimée and more famously in opera by Georges Bizet — it’s there from the start, in the opening titles, the pedals of a rose, the title heroine’s shirt.

But nothing more than color signifies that this is a “Carmen” tale, that old psychosexual drama of a male soldier so seduced by a Spanish femme fatale, he forgets his duties and is driven to jealousy and murder. No, here Carmen is instead a young Mexican woman both headstrong and naïve, restless and searching — much like the film itself.

That is disappointing for a movie seemingly assembled from promise: in Millepied, an enterprising dance-maker who pioneered small-screen performance during the pandemic; in Nicholas Britell, a composer of knockout, earworm-rich soundtracks; in Rossy de Palma, an alluring, otherworldly fixture of Pedro Almodóvar films; and in Paul Mescal, a fast-rising, Oscar-nominated star capable of conveying swaths of biography and feeling in a sadly handsome smile.

They make for a film with elements of dance on camera, musical, of-the-moment melodrama and visual poetry — but without a thorough commitment to any one of those and few, if any, moments of coalescence. The screenplay is spare to the point of meager; characters speak in clichés, like claiming that music won’t pay the bills, and are divided, boringly, into categories of unequivocally good (Mexican immigrants mainly) and bad (all white characters except Mescal’s Aidan).

No dialogue, anyway, communicates more effectively than Britell’s soundtrack, a constant presence, tense and evocative, functioning like opera by fully integrating with, if not driving, the story rather than underscoring it. The movie also says more through movement than speech: percussive flamenco; climactic krumping in a fight sequence starring and set to an original song by the D.O.C.; a touching pas de deux of Carmen’s balletic fluidity and Aidan’s awkward, failing attempts to match her.

Little seems to keep this couple of lost souls — he a tormented war vet, she an undocumented Mexican immigrant on the run — together other than fear. As Carmen, Melissa Barrera is beautiful but somewhat blank, an obtuse mystery next to Mescal, his face having the shape and solemnity of a Roman statue, but eyes that repeatedly betray his pain. De Palma is a welcome source of levity as Masilda, a nightclub owner who tells Aidan that if she were younger she would eat him up like a plate of chilaquiles.

Masilda tells Carmen that her name means poem, that she is “the most beautiful poem made into a woman.” Yet much of the film’s poetry comes from the cinematography of Jörg Widmer — a veteran of Terrence Malick’s sweeping, awe-struck camera gestures — who renders a desert landscape expansive and entrapping, and finds wonder in the otherwise stressful tangle of Los Angeles freeways. Millepied relishes close-ups of bodies in motion, and scatters dreamy symbolism throughout the story, populating his world with angels of death.

Carmen and Aidan are connected, before they meet, by small flames that rise spontaneously from the ground. In the end, they are separated by tragedy. Their trajectory couldn’t be simpler, but this film, at nearly two aimless hours, doesn’t seem interested in, or capable of, that kind of focus.

Rated R for language, nudity and violent dancing. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters.

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