Directed by: Benjamin Millepied
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Written by Anna Harrison
The story of Carmen has gone through many iterations: novella, opera, “Carmen Jones,” whatever mangled operetta version my elementary school would have the sixth graders perform every few years (my class got saddled with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” and if anyone ever cares to sic a Twitter mob on me, it will be for that), and now Benjamin Millepied’s film. Any resemblance to Bizet’s opera stops at the shared name; Millepied transfers the story of Mérimée’s novella and Bizet’s opera from Spain to the border between the US and Mexico and swaps the arias for dance numbers—not unexpected, as most of Millepied’s career has been spent in the ballet world. (He met his wife, Natalie Portman, on the set of “Black Swan.”)
We open not with soldiers playing cards, but flamenco dancer Marina Tamayo defiantly dancing in the face of death; she is protecting Carmen (Melissa Barrera), but from what, we don’t exactly know. Everything is silent except for the tapping of her heels on wood, the snaps of her fingers, and the lonely car that spells her doom driving to her in the vast Chihuahuan Desert. It’s a masterclass in sound and tension, almost entirely devoid of dialogue and all the better for it. Only after this do we meet our Carmen and Don José, who goes by the name of Aidan this time around and whose light skin and pale blue eyes, courtesy of Paul Mescal, do little to convince the audience he’s from a border town in Texas, though that’s what we’re told.
The two meet at a border crossing gone awry, ending in the death of one of Aidan’s fellow border patrol men, and so Carmen and Aidan go on the run (Aidan was dragged into a one-night commitment to pay for the mortgage for his deceased parents’ house, so any questionable optics about the power dynamic of former-marine-turned-border-officer/illegal immigrant romance get pushed aside). It’s a mostly wordless decision, as the real star of the show is Nicholas Britell’s lush and vivid score, barely lifting from Bizet’s opera but creating its own powerful narrative. In combination with Millepied’s eye for beauty and evocative choreography, the result is an otherworldly feast for the eyes and ears dragged down the moment the characters open their mouths to talk.
Only Pedro Almodóvar muse Rossy de Palma as nightclub owner Masilda manages to make it work—even in the hands of its capable young performers, the dialogue of “Carmen” saps the energy in the room, and Barrera and Mescal lose all chemistry. When they dance, though, the two let the sparks fly: Barrera, with her professional training, is all grace and poise as Carmen, and you understand why Aidan, and the lumbering physicality that Mescal gives him, would be drawn into her orbit. They say what they need to with their bodies; anything done with their mouths is superfluous and leaves you wishing Millepied had forgone a written script altogether.
Those moments of electricity in “Carmen” make the dialogue scenes that follow even worse, but it’s hard to fault Millepied too much for such a daring debut. Despite being based off previous source material (it’s a “known IP,” in the parlance of studio heads), “Carmen” feels like a wholly unique experience, unlikely to be replicated any time soon. If only everyone had just shut the hell up.