Loosely inspired by the seminal George Bizet opera, Carmen tells the story of its titular heroine (Melissa Barrera), who illicitly crosses the border from Mexico to the US to escape the cartel that killed her mother. After reluctant border guard Aidan (Paul Mescal) saves her from a nefarious colleague, he and Carmen go on the run, eventually finding solace at the nightclub owned by her mother’s closest friend, Masilda (Rossy de Palma). But with money running out and the cops still very much on their tail, the duo must resort to desperate measures in order to stay afloat.
Carmen is the directorial debut of French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, and so that it privileges dance over dialogue as a way of telling its story comes as no great surprise. Whilst this does result in some of the film’s emotional beats feeling more than a little underwritten, there are still a fine number of gorgeous, mesmerising sequences that do an excellent job of progressing the narrative; when paired with a typically commanding score from the wonderful Nicholas Britell, this creates a visual and aural feast, imbuing the action with a bracing, sumptuous vitality. There’s something of the early Baz Luhrmann – movies like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge – to Carmen’s theatrical energy, and the way it turns the screen into a stage whilst remaining ever cinematic.
Melissa Barrera proves a true triple threat as the eponymous lead, providing a film with a tendency towards unwieldiness a solid, compelling anchor. Still, unashamedly running away with every scene is the luminous Rossy de Palma (best known for her decades long collaboration with Pedro Almodóvar), who plays Carmen’s guardian angel and surrogate mother. One of the most interesting things about Millipied’s movie is how much more concerned it is with the matrilineal bond between Carmen and Masilda than it is with the central romance; that the film’s most joyful numbers involve Carmen and the other women at the La Sombra nightclub, and that de Palma exudes warmth so voluptuously whilst Paul Mescal seems unusually adrift here only underlines that refreshing but atypical bias.
In fact, that arguably the most exciting young actor working today proves the weakest part of Carmen is the movie’s big surprise. Although the screenplay does cast him as the most peripheral of the central trio, it’s still hard to ignore just how aimless Mescal appears whenever he is meant to be the focus; he frequently gets lost amidst all the movie’s riveting sound and fury, and his vague stab at an American accent doesn’t help matters. He does at least hold up better in the sequences where his physicality does the talking, as in the final act dance battle, but it remains hard to escape the feeling that he’s been rather distractingly miscast.
Though it is both messy and narratively thin, there’s a propulsive energy to Benjamin Millepied’s debut that makes you eager to forgive many of its weakness. One thing’s for sure, anyway – it’s certainly never boring.
Dazzler Media presents Carmen in selected cinemas from 2 June