‘Carmen’ – Review

Benjamin Millepied delivers a show-stopping reimagining of Georges Bizet’s 19th-century opera. The mystical film strips down what you know about the classic story and instead focuses on movement, emotion, and the power of romance. Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal have palpable onscreen chemistry, with an all-timer Nicholas Britell score guiding you through the film. 

Georges Bizet’s 19th-century opera ‘Carmen’ has been told numerous times on screen and stage, but never quite like Benjamin Millepied’s interpretation. Not only has the setting changed, but most of the music has been scrapped, as well as the plot being very different from what you may remember of the story of ‘Carmen.’ Millepied’s Carmen tells a tale as old as time about star-crossed lovers doing anything they can to be together. 

Aidan (Paul Mescal) has returned to the United States after two tours in Afghanistan, and, against his own wishes, he has taken a job with the Border Patrol. Carmen (Melissa Barrera) is fleeing Mexico after her mother is murdered by a cartel who are coming after her next. Aidan is working his first night for the Border Patrol when his partner spots an abandoned truck, and chaos ensues as he aggressively goes after a family making the trek across the border. Aidan’s conscience kicks into gear, and after a shootout, the pair quickly find themselves on the run together. 

Carmen is an ethereal film that feels mystical at times. From the sweeping cinematography (Jörg Widmer) to the stirring Nicholas Britell score, audiences feel enveloped in the world Millepied has built. Despite the film having little dialogue, both Aidan and Carmen are so easy to understand as Carmen leans into their physicality to tell their stories and explore their emotions. Millepied uses his background in dance and choreography to utilize telling the story with not just dance, but body language. You can feel Aidan’s profound sadness from the way he carries himself; his shoulders held high as if he’s trying to block a punch. Carmen moves with a fierceness that commands attention, but at the same time there’s a longing in her eyes. They both deeply need to find another person not to just hold onto but who really sees them. 

Despite the intense chemistry between Barrera and Mescal, there are a few moments where the dancing sequences feel out of place. While expertly performed and stunning to watch, they don’t feel fully integrated into the story. Some of the dance sequences feel more at home in a stage show than as a scene in a narrative film. However, Carmen restores its energy just when it begins to slip with the introduction of Masilda (Rossy de Palma), the owner of the club where Aidan and Carmen seek safe harbor as Carmen knew she would find solace in a family friend. Masilda is the connection to Carmen’s family she’s been missing; she’s the maternal figure who can show Carmen what she really needs in life. De Palma verbalizes the film’s themes about love, grief, and liberation from the past. The film’s story is told much through movement, but de Palma is able to vocalize all the major points of the film. 

The performances in Carmen are incredible. Mescal is able to convey such a deep sense of sorrow with just his body language and eyes. There’s a haunting manner to the way he portrays Aidan until he’s with Carmen. Barrera delivers career best work with her stunning, unique portrayal of Carmen. She’s able to express so many emotions with her eyes from love to longing to terror. One of the best parts of the film is the legendary casting of de Palma: a perfect role for the iconic Pedro Almodóvar regular. She’s captivating with every moment she’s on screen. The star of the film is the Britell score; for a composer with so many iconic scores in his career already, there is nothing like his score for Carmen. His stunning work elevates the film in every way. 

Millepied delivers a show-stopping reimagining of Bizet’s 19th-century opera. The mystical film strips down what you know about the classic story and instead focuses on movement, emotion, and the power of romance. Barrera and Mescal have palpable onscreen chemistry with an all-timer Britell score guiding you through the film. When Carmen truly works, it’s a seductive cinematic experience. The stunning cinematography combined with the ethereal storytelling decisions from Millepied deliver a striking experience that deserves to be seen on the big screen. While light on story, Carmen is a tale we all know, so it’s easy to fall in love with the experience Millepied creates. The emotional, visceral film has one of the most powerful endings of the year so far that you can only get from a piece of musical cinema made by someone who feels and understands the power of dance.

Grade: B+

Oscars Prospects:
Likely: None
Should be Considered: Best Original Score, Best Cinematography

Release Date: April 21, 2023
Where to Watch: In Select Theaters

Kenzie Vanunu
she/her @kenzvanunu
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky
Sign: Capricorn

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