Benjamin Millepied's debut film gets some heat out of Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera but feels like an over-extended music video
Georges Bizet’s 1870s opera of an amour fou, Carmen, gets a very loose adaptation for the debut film of Benjamin Millepied, previously best known as the choreographer for Natalie Portman’s musical excursions in Black Swan and Vox Lux. Transplanting the action from 19th century Spain to the modern Mexican-American border, it makes for only an occasionally effective fit. There’s some impressive choreography and punchy music, but these are let down by terrible dialogue and a story that loses impact to its own inertia, its runtime stretching a lot further than its ideas.
Instead of the seductive gypsy of the source material, this eponymous Carmen (Melissa Barrera) is a Mexican woman on the run from cartel violence, crossing the border into the southern US. Here, she encounters beau-to-be Aiden (Paul Mescal), a PTSD-riddled soldier working border patrol who ends up killing his psychopathic patrol partner to keep Carmen safe. With this, the pair is on the lam and heading to a safehouse near LA where Masilda (Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma), an old friend of Carmen’s mother, can offer them sanctuary.
It’s a plot that’s heavy on the front-loaded exposition – the opening act spends an awful lot of time not very elegantly setting things up – but eventually becomes rather sparse. If Millepied had filled this spare time more consistently with the dance numbers that are Carmen’s real raison d’etre, this looseness, alongside the frequent dream logic skips through story and place, would have been no problem, but a lot of the time here is dedicated to nothing in particular. This is a 90-minute movie (if that), stretched out to just under two hours, and it eventually just feels very thin.
At its best, with the characters wordlessly moving to another memorable score from Nicholas Britell, Carmen has an enveloping warmth and charm, but these moments of magic are few and far between. Barrera makes for a decently strong lead, adding new depths to the song-and-dance talents she impressively displayed back in 2021’s In the Heights, and, when the two aren’t being inexplicably kept apart, she shares a sometimes-sizzling chemistry with Mescal.
For his part, Mescal is hardly putting in Aftersun-level work here, but he still manages to capture the twitching, haunted physicality of a PTSD-riddled veteran, even if the American accent he has to don doesn’t quite fit him. It’s just a shame that the unspoken connection he and Barrera share can’t stay unspoken; Loic Barrere and Alexander Dinelaris’s script is incredibly clunky, full of guileless exposition and overwrought speeches. The ending too is mostly unsatisfying, revolving too heavily around a slightly embarrassing action sequence.
For a film where the most obvious selling point is basically “Paul Mescal moves his body,” Carmen sure spends a lot of time not doing that. As a vehicle for him and Barrera, it’s a decent chance for them to add some new flamenco-inspired strings to their respective bows, but that alone fails to keep Carmen consistently lively. With its frequent glossy digital panoramic wides and earnest but shallow overtures at being about something, be that PTSD, gun violence, or the treatment of migrants, it feels a lot more like an extended music video than a committed feature film.
Carmen is released in UK cinemas on 2 June.Where to watch