In the opening scene of Carmen, a flamenco dancer moves on a platform in the desert near the Mexican-U.S. border, her feet moving fast and long hair whipping in the wind. Two men arrive. One yells, “Where is she?” The dancer hits the platform harder, staring at the man as he raises a gun. She dances as if to banish him from the world. She ends with a stomp. He shoots her in the head. I buckle in for a wild ride. 

Carmen is a musical drama directed by Benjamin Millepied — a former principal in the New York City Ballet, director of dance in the Paris Opera Ballet and choreographer of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological horror Black Swan. The premise of Carmen is loosely based on the famous French opera of the same name. Starring Melissa Barrera (In the Heights, Scream V and VI) and rising indie sweetheart Paul Mescal (Aftersun) as star-crossed lovers, Carmen has so much potential. Sadly, the screenplay by Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman), Loïc Barrère and Millepied gives the actors little chance to shine. 

Mescal’s sad-eyed former Marine Aidan is volunteering with border patrol, a violent-go-lucky band of jerks who hunt fleeing migrants for sport. When one flies off the handle, Aidan kills him. The beautiful young Carmen — daughter of the murdered flamenco dancer — flees, and Aidan follows. They are now on the run, in search of a woman named Masilda whom Carmen’s mother had instructed her to find. Carmen and Aidan become lovers and endure a series of questionable decisions made by the film’s creators. 

They find Masilda in an L.A. nightclub. It’s glitzy and sophisticated and a little strange — and derivative of David Lynch, particularly of Muholland Drive, but I don’t mind because the story finally comes alive. Holding hands, Carmen and Aidan navigate the scene with caution. Dancers touch Carmen as she moves through the club, as if she were part of the choreography all along. A figure stands in the center of the stage, a shawl draped over her face. When she removes it, we see it is the great Rossy de Palma — a staple in Pedro Almodóvar’s films — and Carmen’s greatest asset. Glamorous and otherworldly as Masilda, de Palma provides much-needed levity in an overly somber story. She feels deeply and loves completely, embracing Carmen the moment she discovers her identity. “If I were 50 years younger,” she says to Aidan, “I would [makes guttural sucking noise] like a plate of chilaquiles.” Honestly, we love to see it. 

Despite de Palma’s magnetism, Carmen fails to coalesce because the filmmakers chose style over substance. Director of photography Jörg Widmer often works with Terrence Malick, and the cinematography is as soaring as you’d expect — particularly during the masterful but displaced dance sequences. But at other times, his decisions — or perhaps those of Millepied — undercut the story. A scene is shot through the windows of the car for no apparent reason — we’re not watching from another character’s point of view, although this decision would make sense if we were. In such scenes, instead of revealing plot or character or anything at all, the shots are distracting.

Other contrivances give the film a strained pace. The songs, while fine unto themselves, slow down the story, and the urgency of Carmen and Aidan’s plight is delayed, when it’s felt at all. The score by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, Succession) is gripping — operatic but contemporary, evocative and moody, but so much so that it overshadows everything else, swallowing an already meager story. It’s a shame. 

But what is really unforgivable in Carmen is the lack of development of the titular character. While we know much of Aidan’s past — his two tours in Afghanistan, his lingering PTSD, his family life, his damaged fellow soldiers — Carmen remains a mystery except in grief. We see her through Aidan’s gaze, and she is exoticized under these circumstances, as brown women have historically been in American film and television. Carmen departs from this only in the most relatable and best scene in the film, when Masilda forces the character’s grief out of her. Barrera can act, and it’s wrenching. We see exactly what we are missing during the other 110 minutes of the film. It gets more baffling from there — a fight club scene is accompanied by hordes of blood-thirsty men krumping, serving a heightened sense of realism that is absent in the rest of the film. As two characters spar, a rapper played by The D.O.C. — co-founder of Death Row Records and frequent collaborator with N.W.A. and Snoop Dogg, among many others — spits rhymes that are, honestly, not very good. I think he rhymes trauma with llama? It’s difficult to understand him because his vocals are overproduced. 

If for the stage, Carmen might be visionary. Benjamin Millepied is clearly a gifted choreographer. Hopefully, he’ll find his groove as a filmmaker. But if not, there’s always the artform he was clearly born to dominate. 

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