Review | ‘Carmen’: A tragic romance, in more ways than one

(2 stars)

The dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied makes an ambitious, puzzlingly uneven directorial debut with “Carmen,” a scattershot interpretation of a story still most commonly associated with Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera. In this stylized multigenre version, Millepied sets his tragic romance on the U.S.-Mexico border, where the title character, played by Melissa Barrera, obeys the deathbed wish of her beloved mother and sets out for California. It’s on that fraught journey that she meets Aidan (Paul Mescal), a former Marine who aspires to be a musician but takes a gig as a freelance border agent (read: vigilante) for the money. When a colleague suggests that at least someone on the squad should speak Spanish, another replies, “Why? Do you speak deer?”

With his lambent blue eyes and perennially wounded expression, Aidan is clearly too sensitive for this world. As he and Carmen make their way to Los Angeles, Millepied finds every opportunity he can — whether it makes sense or not — to have someone, usually Barrera, break out in a sinuously expressive dance number. (Perhaps in tribute to Carlos Saura’s gorgeous 1983 adaptation, this “Carmen” opens with a riveting flamenco, performed by Marina Tamayo, that turns into a wordless showdown with a drug runner.) Millepied’s “Carmen” isn’t an opera, exactly, but neither is it a musical: Although the filmmaker indulges the same heightened emotions and unsubtle staging as the classics of those forms, he never strikes a convincing balance between of-the-moment naturalism and outsize expression.

The result is that “Carmen” often feels aimless, its draggy, unfocused energy underscored by a marked lack of genuine chemistry between the two attractive stars. Things perk up considerably when Almodóvar rep player Rossy De Palma arrives on the scene as a nightclub owner-performer who was a friend of Carmen’s late mother. If her dancing is sometimes awkward, De Palma injects much-needed campy humor into otherwise drearily self-serious proceedings.

One of the chief draws of “Carmen” isn’t just the dancing — which is occasionally dazzling but more often underwhelming — but a score written by the great Nicholas Britell, most famous for his brilliant “Succession” theme and his collaboration with Barry Jenkins. Although there are sonic glimpses of Britell’s signature ostinato here, they’re too often drowned out by choirs that are meant to be heavenly but just sound pretentious and grandiose.

Overwrought and overthought, this “Carmen” somehow winds up being underbaked, as Millepied throws various ideas at the screen, with precious few taking hold with any conviction. “Ay yi yi,” De Palma’s character moans sorrowfully at one point. We know how she feels.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, some violence and nudity. 116 minutes.

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