Review: ‘Carmen’ modernizes the iconic opera

In his directorial debut, renowned choreographer Benjamin Millepied created a dreamlike yet unsteady presentation of song, dance and word.



Carmen (Melissa Barrera) and Aidan (Paul Mescal) in the film “Carmen.” (Goalpost Pictures. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.)

Madeline Kane, Contributing Writer

Benjamin Millepied’s dynamic directorial debut “Carmen” is based on the acclaimed opera of the same name, by French composer Georges Bizet. While the original was set in Seville, Spain, the film adaptation takes place in Los Angeles, and along the U.S.-Mexico border. While the film is unsure in its message, “Carmen” is a vivid expression of pain, love and fear.

The film begins in northern Mexico, where Zilah (Marina Tamayo) passionately shows off her flamenco dancing on a small wooden board in the Chihuahuan Desert. The rhythm grows louder and prouder with each step, building tension. This magnetic energy abruptly ends, however, when Zilah is shot by a pair of bandits. Newly orphaned, her daughter Carmen (Melissa Barrera) burns down their small home and flees toward the Mexican border to get to Los Angeles, where her godmother lives.

At the same time, in a small U.S. town across the border, Aidan (Paul Mescal) notices flickering flames scattered across the ground. A Marine back from being deployed in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Aidan has struggled to transition into life as a civilian. He is physically present with the people in his life, yet his lingering post-traumatic stress disorder has trapped his mind in a dark and unbearable place.

In an effort to help him, Aidan’s older sister Julieanne (Nicole da Silva) finds him a job in a border militia as a patrolman. On Aidan’s first night of work, he rides in a truck with his partner Mike (Benedict Hardie) and drives toward the border wall. Carmen joins a group of other Mexican immigrants and quietly crawls through a hole below the wall.

From Jörg Widmer’s smooth cinematography to Nicholas Britell’s harrowing score, “Carmen” is a fever dream of a film. It is told from the perspective of people’s dreams, and there are many theatrical motifs throughout. Before “Carmen,” Millepied was a famed ballet dancer and choreographer, most notably in Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller “Black Swan.” As such, the film’s best moments come when Millepied puts his choreographic expertise on screen — technically heavy dance pieces with poetic undertones. Millepied takes control of space in a way that has seldom been seen on film.

Where “Carmen” falters, however, is in its screenplay, written by Millepied, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Loïc Barrère. Many pivotal details, including the reason for Zilah’s murder, are left ambiguous and fail to come together. As a result, the story feels incomplete and messy, leaving the audience unsure of what to make of certain scenes. 

“Carmen” peaks when Aidan and Carmen are brought together as a pair of far-flung strangers. Mescal portrays Aidan’s post-traumatic stress disorder in a nuanced and sensitive way, differing from the emotionally simplistic way the media typically portrays soldiers coming back from war. Instead of isolating himself, he walks around on quiet street corners and quarries, strumming his guitar and singing. Barrera is magnetic as Carmen, showing a heartbreaking mix of grief, fear and desire all at once. While the film’s script fails to give its stars great material to work with, Mescal and Barrera are able to draw viewers into what’s happening on screen. 

While weak at times in its storytelling, the film achieves its desired effect. It is memorable, moving and irresistible, but hard to categorize. Millepied’s desire to be known as a filmmaker who blends the narrative and metaphoric spectacle certainly is certainly achieved with “Carmen.”

Contact Madeline Kane at [email protected].