“Carmen” is many things: a novella (by Prosper Mérimée) inspired by a Pushkin poem (“The Gypsies”); a classic Bizet opera inspired by that novella; an archetype wrought by said opera of the sexy, fearless and feared woman; and countless interpreted films, from Cecil B. DeMille’s silent saga to Otto Preminger’s adaptation of the all-Black musical to Carlos Saura’s flamenco masterpiece.
Now comes what French-born choreographer and first-time feature director Benjamin Millepied (he who choreographed “Black Swan”) is calling his “Carmen” from a parallel universe, an original modern-day drama with music and dance set on the U.S./Mexico border, with its same-named protagonist reimagined as a headstrong Mexican immigrant fleeing violence, seeking sanctuary, falling for an American Marine and — what else? — finding herself.
Mostly, though, Millepied’s debut — premiering at the Toronto Film Festival and featuring rising star Melissa Barrera (in the title role) and Irish actor Paul Mescal (“Normal People”) — is a woefully pretentious and uninvolving slog, an arthouse screen-saver only sporadically ignited by its two best components: composer Nicholas Britell and Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a flamboyant nightclub owner-performer.
Yes, even the dancing sequences — what you think would be Millepied’s bread and butter — don’t qualify as an asset in this misfire.
There’s simmering promise at the start, as cinematographer Jorg Widmer’s camera carries us across the Chihuahuan desert to a remote house, accompanied by Britell’s choral music and de Palma’s husky voice elliptically talking of dangerous men, blood, sand and sadness. Then we see a black-clad woman (Marina Tamayo) with piercing eyes performing a flamenco outdoors, until gunmen drive up and shoot her. When Carmen (Barrera) arrives to discover her mother dead, she mourns her (again, voiceover teases some necessary journey of healing and discovery) then burns down the house and takes off, presumably to avoid the killers.
That forcibly ethereal yet potent enough opening segues, however, into our introduction to jobless, scarred Iraq war veteran Aidan (Mescal) in his dead-end American border town; these clunky, thematically spelled-out scenes reveal the earthbound limits of the more dialogue-dependent portions of the screenplay by Alex Dinelaris, Loïc Barrère and Millepied.
Needing money, Aidan reluctantly joins a nocturnal border patrol of trigger-happy volunteer guards. But when an encounter with a group of crossing immigrants (that includes Carmen) turns deadly, the pair join forces and flee. She’s trying to get to a dear family member in Los Angeles. He’s helping her as he evades the authorities. And we’re left wondering across countless scenes with zero chemistry why this pairing makes no sense, not even working on some dreamlike, visceral level about America and Mexico.
It even dissatisfies when the meager story recedes to showcase singing and dancing — nearly always haphazardly shot with a restless, roving camera — and, in one case toward the end, rapping, when veteran hip-hop star The D.O.C. rhymes over an underground boxing match. But the energy in that scene is too little, too late.
If Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s vividly stylized “The Red Shoes” is the epitome of a repurposed classic rapturously synthesizing plot, character, visuals and performance into a work of art, Millepied’s “Carmen” is like a meandering carnival of self-seriousness in which people say things like, “The thing you’re running from is almost always the thing you’re running toward” and “I belong to myself and to my heart,” where brooding replaces interiority, and where a figure occasionally spotted in a suit of mirrors is supposed to seem mysterious.
Three cheers, then, when the pair reach L.A. and we get the full flower of de Palma’s irreverent magnetism as Masilda, Carmen’s protective, affirming spirit whisperer, through whom Barrera’s thinly drawn protagonist is meant to achieve her destiny as her mother’s daughter, but also herself, whoever that is. It may be Millepied’s biggest problem that if you’re reworking one of opera’s most galvanizing, full-blooded female characters for your consciously arty update, giving an up-and-coming performer like Barrera little to work with beyond a lackluster midnight dance here, an unmemorable song there, and a lot of running, is certainly a choice. Mescal isn’t served any better, looking primarily like a spectator.
Thankfully, de Palma effortlessly enlivens any scene she’s in (getting real laughs when she flirts with Aidan), and in her character’s otherwise dreary-looking nightclub, she lands the movie’s best number with her florid gestures, ornate look and commitment to selling the insipid lyrics. And in an otherwise unremarkable score too enamored of its choral voices, the music accompanying de Palma is Britell’s shining moment, too — a softly driving, Spanish-inflected strings-and-percussion theme you won’t mind lingering in your head long after you’ve forgotten the rest of this choppy, hollow “Carmen.”
“Carmen” will open in U.S. theaters in 2023 via Sony Pictures Classics.