The story of Carmen, both the novella by Prosper Mérimée and the opera by Georges Bizet, are deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness. You don’t need to have seen the opera to know the music or the tale of the seductress who sinks her claws into a naÃ¯ve soldier. It’s a narrative of immense emotional power and one that’s lent itself surprisingly well to re-imaginings across stage and screen, from Carmen Jones to Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring a young Beyoncé. Now, dancer-choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who you may recognize from Black Swan, has decided to use the story for his feature directorial debut. The results are a series of Choices we have many questions about.
After the murder of her mother, Carmen (Melissa Barrera) flees across the border to America but is attacked by a wildly racist volunteer border guard. Traumatized veteran Aidan (Paul Mescal), another guard who was coaxed into the job (don’t worry, he’s not a racist), not only kills people to save her but immediately goes on the run with a total stranger. None of this sounds much like the story of Carmen and really, there’s very little of the original opera here. Reinterpretations are welcome, especially with a text this old, but you can’t help but wonder why they even bothered to call it Carmen when everything, from the setting to characters, is so different.
It’s almost impressive how poorly made Carmen is on a purely technical level. Shots are poorly blocked, including the dance numbers, which is baffling given that the director is filming his own choreography. There are moments where scenes are so poorly lit that you can’t see actors’ faces. Millepied moves the camera around a lot to create the illusion of dynamism but it ends up creating unnecessary dizziness in the viewer. Millepied doesn’t entirely seem to know whether the dance scenes are part of a surreal break from reality or happening in the scene. A fourth-wall breaking number featuring Rossy de Palma (a legendarily charismatic actress who almost saves the film through the sheer indomitable force of her on-screen magnetism) seems like fantasy until the shot abruptly cuts away to reveal otherwise, thus draining the moment of any real wonder.
It’s not hard to see why the director might have felt lost in his own film because the script is a harried mish-mash of half-baked ideas and genres that never coalesces into something of intrigue or cohesion. It wants to give the character and archetype of Carmen greater depth than the well-accepted stereotype of a ‘feisty seductress’ but seldom lets her move beyond the two-dimensional.
Melissa Barrera is trying very hard with this part but her Carmen is a figure of intense tragedy with little else to convey. Paul Mescal struggles similarly. We’re supposed to believe that their connection is instant, a fiery passion that nothing could quash, but there’s nothing for the audience to grab onto. Mescal and Barrera don’t have much passion (and neither character has anything else going for them to make them intriguing beyond stock tragic backgrounds that aren’t developed.) The lack of heat cannot help but kill any chance this had of succeeding. We understand how dire their situations are but that’s not enough.
The decision to move the story to the Mexico-U.S. border also proves to be a major misstep. It’s evident that they hope this choice will inject some contemporary political urgency into the narrative but that would have required using the setting as more than window dressing. The broad strokes with which all of this is drawn feels more appropriate to a ballet, where movement and emotion can take the place of the nitty-gritty, but Millepied isn’t aiming for that. Those moments of pure physicality are so poorly shot and lost amid the pointlessness of everything happening around them that all potency is sapped out. It’s a shame because some of the choreography looks stunning and composer Nicolas Brittel’s turbulent and overwhelming score really deserve a vision of more cohesion.
Carmen seems like the kind of movie that a sizeable handful of people will absolutely love. They’ll find joy in its ambition and will feel fully invested in its allegorical approach. For me, however, the whole thing was bereft of focus and intent. Sometimes, flinging all of your ideas at the wall to see what sticks can result in real magic. I admire filmmakers who have too many notions as opposed to too few, but intent requires skill. Millepied may eventually become a sturdy director but for now he’s failing too many of the most basic lessons of filmmaking 101.
Carmen had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It currently does not have a release date.