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Toronto Review: Benjamin Millepied’s ‘Carmen’

For questionable reasons, some very talented people got it into their heads that it would be a great idea to redress Georges Bizet’s classic 1875 musical Carmen for the big screen by throwing out everything—the setting, the era and, most of all, the music—and replacing it with a misguided attempt at relevance by setting it on the contemporary U.S. and Mexican border.

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It’s evident from the outset that nothing about this trendy approach works at all and it only gets worse as it goes along. Perhaps some viewers will be sucked in by the enterprise’s devotion to its own relevance, but from almost any perspective—dramatic, cinematic, political or musical–this is a thoroughgoing wash-out. It has no sense of cinema.

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Celebrated choreographer Benjamin Millepied describes his undertaking as a “complete reimagining” of this time-tested war horse which, it’s worth noting, was not terribly well received at its Paris premiere in March, 1875. The composer died three months later, at only 35, unaware of the classic status that his final work would eventually achieve.

At this point, Carmen is a familiar war horse and certainly fair game for revision, adornment, and –why not?– re-conceiving. Nicholas Britell, an eminent film score composer, songwriter and academic, took up the challenge of devising a new Carmen, and what could be more timely and compelling, one might think, than placing the action in the present day along the highly contentious national divide?

Well, plenty of things, as it turns out. Much of the film is set in the middle of a conspicuously unattractive desert that soon becomes a big boring turn-off as a location (the film was shot, for complicated Covid-related reasons, in Australia). There’s also something “off” about the look of the town where the desperate couple finally ends up and are able to perform in a way that’s long been delayed.

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But, far more importantly, the lead couple is neither beguiling nor engaging. After the murder of her mother, Carmen (Melissa Barrera) makes her way from Mexico into the U.S., but not without two other immigrants in the group being killed by a volunteer border guard. Another guard, Aidan (Paul Mescal), is a marine with PTSD, and he and Carmen end up escaping the border scene together to look for Carmen’s mother’s best friend, the owner of La Sombra, a local would-be sanctuary of music and dance.

The introduction of the U.S.-Mexican border issue theoretically introduces a new and topical dramatic element to the perennial story, but it all feels quite concocted and is peopled mostly by cliched suspicious types. Viewer sympathy with the central couple is essentially assumed, but neither is really likable and their romance seems rote and automatic rather than truly felt or earned; they never engage in a way that draws you in and makes you root for them.

Yes, their predicament is dire and they must suffer to survive, but the writing and acting don’t begin to measure up to the occasion. When, at last, they finally arrive at the nightclub, which is unaccountably large and fancy given its dicey location, music and dance take over for a while. But the original’s music is sorely missed, and the limited appeal of the two leads never ignites into a relationship that galvanizes your emotional interest. It all feels concocted, unseductive and wildly unconvincing.

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