Composer Georges Bizet died suddenly at age 36, just after the 32nd performance of his masterpiece, Carmen, in 1875, believing it to be a complete flop. Little did he know that it would go on to become one of the most popular operas of all time and has been used in numerous ads, countless TikTok clips and even makes an appearance in the cult horror videogame Five Nights at Freddy’s. (I read that somewhere – I actually have no idea what most of that sentence means.) Who’d be an artist? It’s all such a roll of the dice.
Some art transcends time and place to become embedded in our collective consciousness. We may not even be familiar with the original work but we’ve probably seen it referenced on The Simpsons, like Hamlet or The Godfather. The Simpson family actually went to see the opera of Carmen (Homer was not a fan), but if you didn’t catch the episode maybe you saw the Swedish Chef and Beaker sing one of its most famous tunes, the “Habanera”, on The Muppet Show. Or you might know the same piece from Sesame Street or the movie Up.
Who knows why some creative endeavours slip through the cracks never to be seen or heard of again while others seem to stay with us forever? (Sure, if they were created by a straight, white guy that really does seem to help.) Carmen certainly has a helluva story: a soldier, Don José, falls in love with the fiery gypsy Carmen and leaves his childhood sweetheart and the army to follow her, but she falls for the toreador Escamillo so the jilted soldier kills her outside a bullfighting ring. The opera gives us a love triangle, jealousy, the colourful setting of Seville, murder and some ridiculously catchy tunes, along with the kind of antiheroine that our culture has always favoured: strong-willed, beautiful, sexy and, ultimately, dead.
The opera was based on the novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée and was thought to be inspired by a real-life anecdote told to him by his friend the Countess Montijo, but it also may have been influenced by “The Gypsies”, a poem by Alexander Pushkin. However it came to be, the story was groundbreaking at the time as it depicted working-class life and a kind of immorality. Bizet didn’t judge his characters and this added to the timeless appeal of the story and made it eminently adaptable; Carmen was seen as a “loose” woman in one era and a feminist icon a couple of generations later. Another theory for the opera’s lasting popularity is that it was a pivotal step towards the popular musicals of the 20th century.
I’ve only hinted at the many reasons Carmen may have endured, and, of course, there will never be a definitive answer. Surely one of the appeals of any piece of art is the mystery of what makes it work. Sometimes all it takes is a piece of brilliant casting, a changed ending, a new splash of colour or the right timing and suddenly everything falls into place. So many elements are in play and could go wrong, but sometimes – rarely, really – they go supremely right, and an audience connects to a work in a way that we don’t really understand.
In many ways film is the most confounding of art forms in that it is such a team effort and relies on so many aspects working together. Unsurprisingly, there are numerous film versions of Carmen. Oscar Hammerstein’s adaptation of it, Carmen Jones, was turned into a movie in 1954, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. A young Beyoncé starred in 2001’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera. A personal favourite is Carlos Saura’s flamenco version (1983), and there is also Jean-Luc Godard’s First Name: Carmen (1983) and even a German version with figure skaters called, you guessed it, Carmen on Ice (1990). They are just a handful of the more than 120 film adaptations. And now there is another one, a musical drama directed by choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied and starring Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal.
The movie is a French/Australian co-production from Chapter 2’s Dimitri Rassam and Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight, but between its cast and crew it has more of an international feel to it. Other Australian creatives include production designer Steven Jones-Evans, costume designer Emily Seresin, editor Dany Cooper, makeup/hair designer Wendy de Waal (sadly her last picture) and several artists from the wonderful Sydney Dance Company.
This latest version begins with Carmen (Barrera) leaving Mexico to escape drug cartel thugs after they murder her mother, Zilah (Marina Tamayo). Carmen illegally crosses the border to the United States (the Mexico–US border scenes were actually filmed outside Broken Hill, New South Wales), where she is captured by an aggressive border patrol volunteer who is then killed by fellow volunteer Aidan (Mescal). Aidan is a returned soldier who clearly has his own issues, and seeing his buddy’s violence towards the young woman triggers his own. Aidan helps Carmen escape and the two manage to make it to Los Angeles and the La Sombra nightclub owned by Zilah’s best friend Masilda (Rossy de Palma of so many Almodóvar films). Carmen has her mother’s talent for dance and becomes a performer at the club. The two fugitives are now in love and Aidan, knowing they are on borrowed time, tries to raise some money by taking part in an illegal fight hosted by a rapping referee (Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry, of N.W.A fame). Unsurprisingly, it all ends rather badly. The simple story is a framework that invites us into an often dreamlike world of music and dance full of symbols and recurring images.
Millepied is best known outside the dance world for choreographing and starring in the Oscar-winning Black Swan (2010). (Let’s not get into what I thought of that pile of crap, but I lay the blame completely at director Darren Aronofsky’s feet. It turned out okay for Millepied – he met and married Natalie Portman.) This is a complete reimagining of Carmen (apparently some of the original lyrics from the libretto are sung in the background of one scene, but that’s about it), and I admire Millepied for having a crack. He has taken a risk and tried to make something new and very cinematic out of the beloved opera, but it largely did not work for me. Not only is this very much a passion project for him but it is also his first feature film, and I think those two factors explain why it is so derivative – it’s hard to miss the influences of everyone from David Lynch to Carlos Saura – and unrestrained. It feels as though at every stage, if someone had an idea Millepied said, “Sure!”, whether it was setting a headless statue on fire, or sand pouring into a car or filling a drinking glass (there’s a lot of sand in this movie).
The film is lush and has some beautiful shots (it’s no surprise that cinematographer Joerg Widmer has worked with Terrence Malick), but nothing feels original. There’s a deserted fun park, a church and the moody nightclub, along with fairy lights and candles everywhere. Some of the most affecting scenes are the simplest, such as the opening one of Carmen’s mother defiantly flamenco-dancing on a simple wooden stage. It is both moving and arresting. Less really can be more but I’m afraid Millepied often goes the other way.
The soundtrack is not exactly subtle either. Composer Nicholas Britell (Succession, Moonlight) seems to have also believed that more is more here. There are some haunting moments but there is so much choral music that its power becomes diluted and only adds to the feeling of everything being overdone. This is not helped by the dialogue penned by Alexander Dinelaris and Loïc Barrere, which is often whispered breathlessly, and the song lyrics by Taura Stinson and Julieta Venegas, which also leave very little to the imagination: “Life is like a puzzle you have to solve.”
One of the reasons I was so keen to see Carmen was Paul Mescal. You could probably put his name on a film called Horseshit at the moment and I would watch it. I fell in love with him, as many of us did, in the TV series Normal People and I have not seen him put a foot wrong since, whether he was playing a small role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter or his extraordinary performance in Aftersun. But he has very little to work with here. His brooding marine is fine but he ain’t no dancer and nor is his co-star. Berrera recently starred in In the Heights and has had a career on TV and stage in her native Mexico, but I’m afraid one of the film’s other big problems is that she simply doesn’t have the right qualities to play Carmen. She’s beautiful but she doesn’t radiate the strength and wildness that we associate with such an iconic character.
When a film asks you to suspend disbelief and step into a different world, it really has to take you with it. This is always greatly helped by genuinely feeling for the characters and what they must overcome, but this is lacking here, partly because there is so little chemistry between Mescal and Barrera. It wouldn’t matter that their dancing wasn’t great – as it wasn’t with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land – if they had earnt our care, but they haven’t.
Other performances, such as Rossy de Palma’s, are just off the leash. She’s always interesting to watch, but when everything is turned up to 11 her performance just becomes another ingredient in an exhausting cocktail.
I’m sure we have not seen the last of Benjamin Millepied, and now that this project is out of his system maybe his next movie will have the originality and light and shade that this one lacks. Or maybe he will just get a whole lot better at saying, “No guys, no more sand.”
Really, who would be an artist? It doesn’t just require talent, diligence and passion, but also judgement and a whole lot of luck. Carmen will endure, of course, and I hope Millepied does too – at least until his second film.
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