Carmen Review: A Fluid, Beautiful Modernization In Deep Need Of Greater Clarity

Bizet's "Carmen," the classic opera about a naïve soldier who falls for the titular Carmen (it doesn't end happily) is one of the most widely known of all time. French choreographer-turned-director Benjamin Millepied's new take on it, in his directorial debut, is a modernized and almost complete reimagining of the material. It is far less of an adaptation than it is an impressionistic, and often beautiful, "Carmen"-inspired outing, one set in a North American context and full of youth and vigor. If you want passionate dance and thematic modernity, and you're none too keen on surplus or even necessary dialogue, this is the "Carmen" for you.

It's interesting, because in many ways "Carmen" is doing something that's been widely advocated and rarely truly practiced. Hitchcock famously advocated filmmakers rely mostly on visual storytelling, emphasizing to Truffaut that a screenplay should, whenever possible, "rely more on the visual than the dialogue." It's a philosophy that informs the practice of many a director, but which often is replaced in practice by an overreliance on narrative and exposition to advance details and narrative. Not here. Here, the narrative is advanced in dance and song, dreamlike interludes, neon lights, and long, winding roads. It's refreshing at times, and maddening at others.

As a result, "Carmen" is a number of things. A vibrant and fluid showcase of the talents of its director and stars, it's often beautiful. The film's an enjoyable purveyor of passionate experience, the collision of desperate and ardent lovers. It's simultaneously unclear at key moments, and the narrative often feels frustratingly thin, a series of impressions where a rich tragedy should be. It's the rare case where a slightly longer runtime would have actually been fruitful, giving certain moments time to breathe. It's largely beautiful yet wildly imperfect, but there are moments of sensuality and fire and fear that make it a worthy experience that, in a proper operatic style, inches close to greatness before being dashed against the rocks of fate.

Passion and beauty in need of clarity

This iteration of "Carmen" sees Carmen (an electric Melissa Barrera) fleeing Mexico after the death of her mother, flamenco dancer Zilah (Marina Tamayo). She hopes to find refuge across the border, hopefully connecting with her godmother Masilda (Rossy de Palma). We then meet ex-soldier Aidan (man-of-the-moment Paul Mescal, cementing his considerable range), who lives in a border town in a community of his sister and other ex-soldiers. Aidan doesn't have the bravado of his veteran peers, instead spending time alone, hitting heavy bags or playing sad guitar songs. He gets pulled into a border patrol outing with another ex-soldier, but when the latter's joyful bloodthirsty behavior surprises Aidan and endangers Carmen, Aidan kills him. Aidan and Carmen go on the road, on the run.

Barrera's Carmen is a complex woman: kind but fierce, intelligent and empathetic, and fully passionate. It's a strong performance, with considerable nuance and gravitas. She emotes through dance, movement, and silence at least as much as dialogue, and Barrera lands that well, with beautifully fluid movement and precise control. Mescal's Aidan smolders: he's intense, sometimes violent, but ultimately loyal and kind. When he saves Carmen, there's little trace of romantic self-interest ... the self-interested possessiveness or the rampant jealousy that plagues operatic protagonist Don José is nowhere to be found, setting up for a different journey and a wildly divergent ending for the eventual lovers.

"Carmen" relies far more on feeling to carry the story than on intellectual understanding. Consequently, certain characters and their arcs are underwritten, but the leads sell their passion and emotion well despite much being left to the imagination. At the same time, a little greater detail and clarity could be helpful in following and feeling major developments and choices. Aidan and Carmen don't seem to have romantic intent when they first go on the run, then later, with little prior romantic teasing, they do. Aidan gives his life up, but his motivations are little explored. Carmen plans to be united with Masilda, but her thought processes for most of the journey could be better explored. 

From the perspective of the characters and performances alone, the film's characterizations are thinly scripted but capably performed, and it's ultimately as enjoyable to watch the leads' chemistry as it is occasionally frustrating that nearly every major character trait and choice have to be heavily inferred.

A largely enjoyable film, with a frustrating lack of context

The way in which Millepied's "Carmen" is modernized is smart, pivoting away from early-1800s Spain and into a modern immigrant story. Highlighting the authoritarian dangers of the modern border patrol, and following characters who are trying to escape the inevitable iron grip of a hostile country, provides an intriguing ticking clock feeling whose impact on the characters is about the only element clearly spelled out for the audience. The pivot in culture and time works rather well, allowing new themes, plot elements, and character traits to be possible.

The issue with taking such an under-explained, free-flowing exhibition of the plot, however, is that there are many instances where "Carmen" would be well served by greater clarity of some kind or another. For example, it would be useful context to understand why Carmen's mother was killed. It's similarly unclear why Aidan is so certain that Carmen will be discovered by the authorities, given she wasn't tracked and at no point did the authorities know who Carmen was, so how would they know where to look? Also, how much time is passing, exactly? Leaving the aforementioned emotional beats unclear and inadequately developed keeps certain elements from landing as well as they could ... the longing, risk, passion, self-sacrifice, and tragedy all mean less when they're opaque to audiences, and time spent trying to infer an understanding of them is time that could be spent feeling them.

All this aside, "Carmen" is a largely enjoyable outing, fueled by a fresh take on the narrative and two leads with great expressiveness and a lot of on-screen chemistry. Barrera's dancing is truly beautiful, the choreography is inspired, and the gorgeous score pulls it all together. It's also a film with questions left unanswered, plot pivots that aren't adequately contextualized, and elements that would simply land better if they were fleshed out even a small amount more. Ultimately, it's a fairly good film in search of a great one. 

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10