Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Carmen (2022) dir. Benjamin Millepied

Performances informed by the decision to dance or die


When I finished watching Babylon for the first time, I couldn’t make heads or tails of whether I liked it. It wasn’t until after the Oscars when I revisited “Voodoo Mama” — the trumpet-led, coke-addled, scene-defining sonic wail of hedonism that dominated the film’s trailer as well as the Academy Awards’ promotional ad — that I realized how impactful Babylon was through its music. For the first time since Colin Stetson’s contribution to Hereditary, I left a film score on a constant loop at work for a week. Being moved by Justin Hurwitz’s conjurings of melancholy and adrenaline without needing to see the scenes is a power befitting for a giant like Babylon. (Despite the Academy’s commercial use of “Voodoo Mama,” the award for Best Original Score went to All Quiet on the Western Front, whose three-note doomsday bass riff of “Remains” hilariously populated a good portion of the film winners’ walks to the stage as if they were victorious high school bullies.)

It’s with this reinvigorated affection for film scores that I watched Benjamin Millepied’s take on the French opera Carmen with excitement, knowing that one of the biggest players will be Nicholas Britell, the current prince of glossy compositions. In pieces that require fervor or betrayal, Britell can wed together a classic piano delicacy and strings as sharp as a Sorkin tongue. In conjunction with Millepied’s background in ballet (most popular for Black Swan, less recognized for the sand walk in Dune, underrated in Barbie in Swan Lake), Carmen has the potential of changing the game by integrating dance and music at the forefront of an acting-forward format.

The film is poised as a reinvention of the opera— it may be inconceivable to punish the main character by having her lover murder her when she no longer wants to be with him — on the US-Mexican border. After both her mother and caretaker were killed, Carmen (Melissa Barrera) crosses over to US land, where she is caught by ex-military men who are hired to help patrol the border. Before she is about to die by the hands of a bloodthirsty soldier, ex-Marine Aidan (Paul Mescal) shoots his companion in the head. With few conflict-filled exchanges between the two, they leave together behind the semblance of life to find shelter in LA.

Choreography takes center when the narrative rests. In recalling her role in Les Mis, Amanda Seyfried once described that singing out of nowhere can seem “abstract and sometimes absurd,” which can certainly extend to the background flash-mob automation in musical films. But Carmen is not quite a musical film— nor is it a dance film in the sense that there are thinly written drumrolls leading up to diegetic performances. Though Carmen is canonically a dancer (which serves somewhat as a plot point), the dances in Carmen seamlessly exist within and outside of the plot, like watching a dream play out and not knowing how entirely anchored it is.

The freedom from stage to screen feels like it should tear down the limitations of space and walls. Carmen takes advantage of that exploration through its cinematography, where we are taken to unpredictable places and imagery. Aidan is often positioned in stunning set designs that don’t share consequential meaning to the story, but the moments that the camera lingers on will reshape the film’s significant aftereffect. After killing the man, Carmen and Aidan implicate themselves into a continual anxiety of escaping from the law, so it’s exhilarating when time is set aside to behold the beauty of fireworks-windmills in the dark or a sparse lodging room with a Virgin of Mary poster dimly lit by Christmas lights.

However, for the times where Carmen has to come back to Earth for the conventional movie bits, it is a little startling how stale it can look. Conversations and non-choreographed movements share a flatness akin to Netflix originals and Marvel frames, which is especially disappointing for a movie that could have elevated the fusion of experimental poetry and recognized entertainment. For example, when Melissa and Aidan reach to their destination (a nightclub owned by Melissa’s mother’s friend Masilda, played by Rossy de Palma) and aren’t sure whether they should separate, the whole scene could have been taken apart into single frames and would have looked pixel-perfect. However, the lack of visual cues in any of those frames to indicate chemistry, impeding danger, any sort of emotional underlining, or to even separate itself from a still from the newest Guardians of the Galaxy is vexing. When Rossy de Palma sing-narrates to the camera in ominous interludes, the movie just needs to hit a grand-slam in weirdness.

Which brings up another point: as usual, Britell’s score is on par for an operatic saga that is Carmen. While the vocal scale of chaos didn’t work for me so well in Dune, Britell layers the urgencies of the orchestra and choir on top of a steady, percussive beat that undermines the imminent fate for the characters. It is a wonderful work of complexity and isolated continuity within the tracks that deserves a separate analysis (such as why some of the tracks are named in French and others in Spanish). However, as a companion to the film, there is a lack of harmony that would have allowed the music to be the film’s best self, and vice versa. The unity of “Lullaby/Beyond” and the film’s climax is a given win in the moment, but neither sound or image impresses upon a lasting effect as big as I’d hope it would.

I try to avoid the “What if” scenario in reviewing a movie, but I wonder if Carmen would have set a precedent had the standardized conveying of a story been dismantled. What if it progressed in an unintelligible language similar to the lamentations of an opera singer, and we could only understand through what we see? What if choreography and score were just the dialogue? If the roles were performed by non-acting dancers, would that alter the relationship between Carmen and Aidan? But in watching the finalized version of someone’s vision, you take and you absorb. Millipied saw that the odyssey of choice can be performed and brought that to the big screen. As we start to see stunt professionals succeed in the director’s chair, I’m excited at the prospect of choreographers redefining the power in motion and music.

dir. Benjamin Millepied
116 min.

Opens Friday, 5/5 @ Kendall Square Cinema

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