This reimagining of Georges Bizet’s Carmen is a flamenco fever dream sheared both of opera and misogyny. Less a film than a vivid, expressionist idea, it prompts a lot of feeling without ever quite coming up with a story.
In the original 1875 opera, Carmen is a fiery gypsy who seduces naïve soldier Don Jose, leaves him and is then (seemingly justifiably?) murdered by him in the grip of a jealous rage. Here, Carmen, played with grace and intensity by Melissa Barrera, escapes into Texas over the border from Mexico after her flamenco dancing mother is killed by drug cartel thugs.
Here, she encounters Aidan (Paul Mescal), an unhappy army veteran who has reluctantly taken a job assisting border patrol. “Just wait ‘til you see how it feels to guard your country from your own backyard,” smirks his boss. When Aidan semi-accidentally kills one of his own men, he and Carmen both take flight, driving an old pick up truck up the dusty desert roads to LA, where they take refuge in the dance school of Carmen’s mother’s friend Masilda and fall in love amidst the percussive footwork and soaring score by man of the hour, Succession’s Nicholas Britell.
It is not an opera but a musical, with brief moments of dialogue and plot (will the authorities come for Aidan? Is his war trauma going to ruin the romance somehow?) interspersed with slickly choreographed dance shows and sad Spanish songs that feature the word corazón (heart) a lot. After a sluggish but more conventional filmic beginning, from the moment the pair arrive in LA, there’s little to no story but increasingly stylised set pieces and fight scenes, including one rather extraordinary boxing match where Aidan pounds his competitor to a sea of raised hands and the rapping of Tracy “The DOC” Curry.
It’s spectacularly filmed, from the hazy sunsets of open Texas to the grimy city streets, and Mescal and Barrera both deliver impassioned performances that signify not the sexist seduction of the original but a modern, mutual meeting of needs. In many ways it is just the makeover this opera needed.
But even a beautiful thing must have a narrative, and the pace wains as a result. This is the first film from writer/director Benjamin Millepied, a dancer and choreographer, and while it suffers from its lack of story, it’s an exciting debut effort and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
In UK cinemas from 2 June