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Carmen review: dance is grand, but story is king

Re-imaginings have the power to transform the old into the new, but this interpretation of Bizet's Carmen doesn't exude quite enough charm to pull it off.

French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, despite being a first-time director on Carmen, most certainly understands the power of the movie camera.

Or, more accurately, his director of photography Jörg Widmer (best known for Pina and Buena Vista Social Club) understands this, and masterfully captures each bodily movement in contrast with the stillness of the desert landscape, or the tandem swirling of ballerinas in time with swinging, neon-drenched amusement park rides.

All of it comes off as rather shallow, though, perhaps better suited to a long-form music video where the story doesn’t matter as much as dynamic sound and striking visuals do.

In cinema, story is king, and while there are thin traces of a plot throughout Carmen – a film that is less an adaptation of Bizet’s famed opera than it is an experimental homage – a brief examination of its story will cause it to crumble.

Read: Carmen producer Rosemary Blight on Millepied’s bold reimagining of Bizet’s opera

Carmen (Melissa Barrera) is a dancer (often a thinly coded way of saying sex worker, but in this case she can be interpreted as both) being hunted by a Mexican drug cartel – for what reason isn’t clear. Aiden (Paul Mescal) is a bored marine-turned-border-patrol-cop, tasked with stopping Carmen and a number of others from entering the US illegally.

Naturally his operation fails when his humanity kicks in and he sees that the immigrants are merely struggling human beings. He is quickly struck by Carmen’s beauty and desperation and falls in love with her, following her all over the country with gun-toting pursuers in tow.

Aiden and Carmen

From his first appearance as Aidan, it’s clear Mescal is at his weakest yet, as much as it pains me to say. His American accent flounders, hitchhiking its way from generic Midwestern to Southern drawl to … Irish. The many fans Mescal has gained after his knockout performance in Aftersun may well be disappointed with his turn as Carmen‘s listless lover. Although if you’re just here for the eye candy, you’ll have your fill. Rossy De Palma’s Masilda is right on the money when she claims she’d ‘eat him like a plate of chilaquiles’.

Read: Aftersun review: memories linger as all else fades

Mescal clearly isn’t one to do things by halves, and it was revealed recently that he learned how to box, play guitar and dance (though not all at the same time, probably) just for the shoot of this film. His commitment to the part shows, and thanks to Millepied’s talent as a choreographer, he can more than keep up with his athletic and graceful counterpart, Barrera.

Speaking of Barrera, in her lead role she is pure triple threat goodness. Even if she somewhat lacks in the acting department (thanks in part to terribly clunky dialogue), she more than makes up for it with her knockout singing and dancing.

Aiden and Carmen’s dance sequence in the desert is a highlight of the film, and certainly made me wonder if they could have done it as a stage show instead (though then we would miss out on the wonderful cinematography, which is the number one thing the film has going for it).

The Sydney Dance Company perfectly execute a number of dance sequences which are, like most of the film, nice to look at, but don’t hold much meaning. These are also elevated by gorgeous costume work that sees a contrast of desert beiges and concrete greys against red and purple bejewelled dresses. Seriously lush stuff.

Read: The New Boy review: an enchanting and intriguing film

Ven a Mi

And then: enter Rossy De Palma. An icon of Spanish cinema, known for Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and much more, her mere presence elevates Carmen from forgettable to worthwhile. Here she is Masilda, the owner of a dance club and Carmen’s godmother. When she takes to the stage to perform her number – ‘Ven a Mi’ – you can feel the reverence of each of her co-stars permeating the screen.

The bulk of the film is tied together by Nicholas Britell’s incredible score. Though quite removed from the original opera, you can hear bits of the libretto sung throughout certain tracks. For the most part, the original songs are not missed – Britell is a masterful composer, and here he has created something fresh that bears listening to on repeat.

If anything, I recommend going to see the film to fully appreciate the way Britell’s score is tied with stunning visuals.

Rated M

Carmen is out now in Australian cinemas.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports