Depending on your appetite for contemporary dance, your mileage will vary with director Benjamin Millepied's Carmen. From the opening moments, the film is gorgeous showcasing a vast landscape that is compromised by a sense of death all around. A woman dances in the desert before being gunned down. Carmen (Melissa Barrera), at the loss of her mother, is thrust on a dangerous journey across the border.
This opening scene suggests a much larger film than what proceeds. Full of strong visuals, Carmen is undone by thin storytelling. While the dance sequences feel meticulously staged, the drama is often slight. The incredible score by Nicholas Britell does a lot to evoke emotions. However, the two-hour runtime reveals how weak the emotional connection to the story and character is.
Following the opening, another scene of violence introduces us to struggling veteran Aidan (Paul Mescal). He joins a racist group of "freedom fighters" who go patrol the border at night. When they find Carmen and a group of immigrants, they begin shooting. Many die but it is clear Aidan is stunned by what is happening and takes it upon himself to stop the bloodshed. The scene represents the disconnect the film often has with the reality of its subject. The scene is superficial, full of striking images but lacking respect for the effects of such violence. It kicks off the road trip that Carmen and Aidan go on to Los Angeles. While this trip has some surprises, the destination feels determined before they even hit the road. Carmen struggles to keep us engaged in the plot as a result.
Plot aside, Carmen is an opera that has been morphed into a dance/musical hybrid. The film works best in the sequences that combine Millepied's choreography and staging with Britell's memorable score. These scenes are where the film sheds the stilted storytelling and becomes something more poetic. The push and pull between these unrestrained dance sequences and the more conventional dialogue-based scenes is jarring. The clunky plot mechanics seem to keep the film from truly soaring.
Mescal and Barrera do their best with such thin sketches of their characters. Mescal is coming off one of the best performances of last year in Aftersun and Barrera is a highlight of the recent Scream films. They both bring more to these characters than what is in the script but it just isn't enough to make the film have a stronger impact. The film doesn't know how to highlight their chemistry either, often keeping the energy between them at a distance.
Carmen is a tough film to recommend. If you enjoy contemporary dance or the recent string of brilliant scores from Nicholas Britell, then I think there is enough here to enjoy. However, if contemporary dance feels like bad interpretive dance to you, the thin plot here and lack of character depth are going to make the film a long watch. Carmen has plenty to admire but somehow it doesn't come together into a satisfying experience.