REVIEW: ‘Carmen’ Can’t Live Up To It’s Ambition

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Carmen — But Why Tho (1)

A formidable challenge for the most tenured director, the modern-day set adaptation Carmen overwhelms first-time director Benjamin Millepied. Based on the 1875 opera of the same name from Georges Bizet, itself based on the 1845 novel by author Prosper Mérimée, there’s an assured timelessness to the story itself. That said, no matter the iteration and the longevity of the story’s effect, the latest update starring recent Oscar nominee, Aftersun star Paul Mescal, and Scream 5 star Melissa Barrera shines in bursts fails to keep the momentum. 

The music composed by Nicholas Britell is one of the strongest elements of Carmen. The music is almost too strong as it makes the case that the film would’ve fared better had they removed the dialogue completely and allowed the story to take shape through wordless actions and choreography alone. The score is evocative and sensual, allowing the performances of Mescal and Barrera in their shared numbers to establish their presence. 

Barrera stars as Carmen, a woman who, after grieving the loss of a loved one, tries to cross the Mexico border to make the dangerous quest to Los Angeles. Following a violent altercation, she along with Mescal’s Aidan, a veteran suffering from unnamed PTSD, go on the run to continue her life-altering journey as she seeks freedom and self-discovery. Arriving at nearly two hours, the movie gives itself an immediate disadvantage by trying to fill up time when it could’ve cut some earlier scenes in order to condense the story and give the emotional pull greater strength. 

Instead, the script busies itself in the setup with asides about Aidan’s living situation. Mescal has a beautiful singing voice and his backstory allows us to witness that as he serenades a vacant courtyard, but his scenes with his sister play too theatrical to the point where when on camera, it comes across as cold. It’s an instance where the direction and performances fail to merge the theatricality of the story with the intimacy cinema requires, causing an uncanny dissonance. Similarly, despite some exquisite dance numbers in the second act, it goes on too long and lessens in interest along the way. 

Carmen — But Why Tho (1)

All of which points the finger at a director whose self-indulgence got the better of him. Millepied has a strong eye for arresting visuals. This is especially true in the haunting musical numbers with the desert as the stage that endless foreground creating a dreamlike and hallucinogenic effect. That said, the script, written by Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and MIllepied, required a level of restraint that they fail to seize. 

What culminates is a meandering narrative fixated on tone and atmosphere and forgoing substance in the process. The rich textures that bleed across the screen and the neon lighting that paint the leads’ faces can’t do anything to solve the issue of the story itself which burns itself out quickly and never recovers in regaining our interest. 

Still, it’s a lush story with sublime cinematography from Jörg Widmer, who manages to make the dry desolation of the desert they’re haunting come alive. Similarly, Barrera and Mescal make for a strong musical unit. Mescal in particular, adds another stripe to his repertoire, highlighting both his musical abilities while making for a sturdy and confident dance partner to Barrera who has more experience in the field. 

Despite the weight the story holds and Millepied’s ambitious vision, Carmen fails to engage beyond brief instances. The film needed complete scenes cut or rewritten to benefit the story’s pacing and instead is bogged down by moments placed as perceived placeholders. The talent involved in making this film is strong, and there’s a certain need for more movies to swing as far as one like Carmen does, but the execution fails to deliver on the promise it had. 

Carmen is playing in limited release starting April 21, 2023.

  • 6/10
    Rating - 6/10


Despite the weight the story holds and Millepied’s ambitious vision, Carmen fails to engage beyond brief instances.

%d bloggers like this: