‘Carmen’ Review: Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera Lead an Update of the Old Spanish Tragedy That Has Plenty of Fire But No Real Heat

Carmen” didn’t begin life as an opera: French Romantic writer Prosper Mérimée conceived this tale of Spanish passion and tragic jealousy in 1845, thirty years before his compatriot Georges Bizet brought it into its best-known, aria-rich form. But it’s a story that thrives on operatic delivery, hinging on emotions so large and loud they beg to be sung at the top of one’s lungs. That makes it the opera that filmmakers can’t leave alone, even as they tend to switch out the music: Its screen interpretations range from Otto Preminger’s Broadway-rooted “Carmen Jones” to Jean-Luc Godard’s daring, Beethoven-infused “First Name: Carmen” to Robert Townsend’s Beyoncé-starring “Carmen: A Hip-Hopera.” With the plainly titled “Carmen,” ballet star and first-time feature director Benjamin Millepied joins that club, mostly eschewing song in an attempt to conjure the material’s intensity through dance. He is only intermittently successful.

Millepied isn’t the first director to fashion “Carmen” as a dance film: The late Carlos Saura’s ravishing 1983 version kept much of Bizet’s music but brought the story to its spiritual home via splendid flamenco choreography. Millepied’s loose interpretation — credited as being inspired both by Mérimée’s text and Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Gypsies” — stresses the same dance style, beginning with a sensational, heel-clacking desert standoff between an elderly female dancer and a lone gunman. That makes comparisons tempting, even as Millepied’s heavily divergent narrative takes place in contemporary North America, with its Carmen (played by “In the Heights” star Melissa Barrera) a young Mexican immigrant chasing a new life across the border.

Yet this flamenco-inspired “Carmen” is often strangely shy about its terpsichorean impulses, with dance sequences functioning as isolated, somewhat haphazard setpieces rather than as a consistent storytelling medium. Between numbers, with none of the original opera included, it’s all too often left too a slender, stilted screenplay — also by Millepied, in collaboration with Loïc Barrère and Alexander Dinelaris (“Birdman”) — to do the talking. To say the writers don’t project an authentic grasp of American border identities is putting it gently; the sparseness of the bilingual English-Spanish dialogue (“Life is a mystery that no one can solve,” “Remember that the thing you’re running from is almost always the thing you’re running towards”) is probably for the best.

That void gives composer Nicholas Britell room to run riot as, in a sense, the dominant voice of the film: Mixing a thundering orchestra with more eerily modern sonic details and shrieking choral arrangements, his heavily amplified soundtrack drives the action as Bizet’s own score did, matching or even aggravating the volume and tempo of the onscreen melodrama. The actors, amid all this sound and fury, can hardly compete. As Carmen, Barrera isn’t given much more to play than sorrowful, occasionally determined purity of heart, a far cry from the wild seductress of the original tale. Recent Oscar nominee Paul Mescal has more inner conflict to reckon with in his new spin on tortured soldier Don José — now Aidan, a shellshocked former U.S. Marine who reluctantly accepts a gig as a border guard. But he still feels jarringly out of place, with a here-and-there American accent shakier than in his recent, triumphant West End turn in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

More problematically, there’s no palpable heat between the two, even if, well before they meet, the film symbolically binds them with spontaneous gasps of fire that flare from the ground in their very presence. (Things keep bursting into flames in “Carmen” — a house here, a fairground catherine wheel there — yet the film never feels accordingly volatile or giddy.) Carmen and Aidan meet at the border when his racist fellow guard attempts to gun down several crossing Mexicans. Impulsively shooting his colleague dead, Aidan shelters Carmen in his truck and they go on the run to Los Angeles, where nurturing family friend Masilda (Rossy de Palma) offers them refuge. And there the story stalls, resisting the hot-blooded, star-crossed calamity of the original denouement for a more nebulous route that the central romance isn’t compelling enough to sustain. De Palma’s gale-force charisma, at least, cuts through the flat writing and uncommitted staging: She would be a Carmen worth raging for.

The dance numbers, which eventually veer from flamenco to ballet and hip-hop in influence, are as sleekly choreographed as you’d expect from Millepied, though only one works up an emotional charge: a pas de deux between Carmen and Aidan that makes a poignant virtue of Mescal’s imperfect footwork, as he tries and fails to catch up with her rapid, whirling movements, hinting at a life he cannot ultimately rescue. But it’s DP Jörg Widmer (a smart hire, given his work on Wim Wenders’ “Pina”) who perhaps pulls off the most dazzling moves here: Working in a palette of scorched yellows and, of course, bodily reds, his camera is rarely still. In one love scene, it bobs and weaves in and around entangled bodies like a third partner; as the runaways drive into L.A., it briefly soars skywards to marvel at the concrete curves of a spaghetti junction. Widmer, it feels, sees dance in everything; it’s Millepied, surprisingly, who hangs back.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.