Attempting to modernize Georges Bizet’s classic 1875 musical by changing its setting to the border between the United States and Mexico turns out to be just as misguided as it sounds in Benjamin Millepied‘s “Carmen,” an erratic, hollow film that finds mild success only through the reckless ambition of its director. Millepied, a noted choreographer, flaunts his professional background by wisely incorporating plenty of gorgeous modern dance sequences into this project. But all the beauty in the world can’t save this overly long, avant-garde melodrama that is a lot of style over substance.

In this gritty, contemporary retelling, Carmen (Melissa Barrera) flees to Los Angeles after her mother is murdered in search of a mysterious club owner named Masilda (Rossy de Palma). As she attempts to illegally cross the border, the young woman is met by trigger-happy militia men who open fire. Carmen is saved by a kind Border Patrol agent named Aidan (Paul Mescal), a former Marine who is struggling with PTSD. Fearing harm, the two escape into the open desert and set off on a journey that’s riddled with apprehension, hope, and romance.

The story is thin, but Barrera and Mescal’s performances are strong. Barrera has a fiery independent streak that works well for her interpretation of Carmen, and Mescal has a classically masculine leading man presence that’s captivating. Individually the actors are quite good, but when they are together, the chemistry just isn’t there. Barely anything in Alexander Dinelaris‘ script makes you care about either of these characters, and there’s certainly nothing to make you root for them as lovers. The romance is crucial to the story, and it turns out to be the film’s biggest failure.

Despite the mediocre screenplay and the lack of chemistry between the leads, the film is visually stunning (if sometimes indulgent). There’s a focus on dancing and choreography later on, and Nicholas Britell’s original score is even more hypnotic when paired with equally magical dance sequences. Fans of musicals will find much to savor, but take note that this isn’t a traditional entry into the genre (it’s more of a drama with a few dance numbers rather than one focused on song and dance).

Changing the music, location, and era of such a well-known story takes a certain amount of ambition and vision, but “Carmen” is a beautifully filmed project that never achieves deeper meaning.

By: Louisa Moore

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