In the isolation of Northern Mexico and the lengthy border with the United States, a young woman named Carmen (Melissa Barrera) heads for refuge in Los Angeles after her mother is killed. On the way, she gets caught in a deadly shootout. A border patrol agent, the war-weary soldier Aidan (Paul Mescal), saves her after killing his partner during a late-night raid. Carmen and Aidan fall in love as they scramble to safety, knowing their time together is short. It is the cruel twist of fate that makes the 1875 opera by Georges Bizet a universally beloved musical piece that still plays well to this day.
Benjamin Millepied makes his directorial debut using Bizet’s opera and describes this version as a “re-imaging” than a modern take on the story. It is an accurate description because of how little of the original story is present. The singing is moved to the background (performed by a children’s choir in French) while the language of love comes in the form of dancing. Nicholas Britell creates an original score that is the dominant sound, and it is quite beautiful. He shows again how much depth his scores can go in any project.
Rossy de Palma, a regular to Almodovar films, is the spiritual narrator. She speaks at the beginning of the film, pronouncing an allegory about her goddaughter Carmen and the man she would come across. It is a delight to see her in a non-Almodovar film and play a supporting role where her physical and vocal presence is essential. This is especially true in her flamenco dance nightclub.
However, that’s where my liking for this film ends. As the story shifts into the second act, the momentum drops off. The story lands somewhere between a Mexican soap opera and an avant-garde musical film. The script, written by Millepied, Loïc Barrère, and Oscar-winner Alexander Dinelaris Jr. (Birdman), does not convey much of the story. Instead, the screenplay solely relies on its actors, their dances, and the overall tone of the film.
The ending, totally different than the original opera, is random. Even the accompanying rap lyrics by Tracy “The DOC” Curry can cover for it. People may follow it on stage, which plays into Millepied’s background as a choreographer with the New York City Ballet. However, it does not translate on screen well when it is all visual. This lacks the message of its scenery.
Mescal, burning high still from his Oscar-nominated performance in Aftersun, will need to polish up his accent. It’s North American-ish, and he lacks the raw emotion required in the tragic climax. Barrera does not do enough to be a standout as the titular heroine. This does not mean she is bad, but she also does not pop. Granted, this is tough order on the two leads to duplicate the necessary power needed in Bizet’s original opera. On the screen, arguably the best was Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones in 1954. That’s a high bar to reach, and Carmen fails to get there.