The story has turned up in so many forms, in every media imaginable — yes, even a “graphic novel” — that it’s a piece of our universal narrative heritage now.
“Carmen” was the classic femme fatale, the perfect temptress to build an opera, a ballet, plays or movies around. Now the smoking and smoking hot Spanish Gypsy who is handy with a knife becomes a dancer, on the run from trouble in Mexico, fleeing straight into more trouble when she slips across the border and into the United States.
Choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millipied (“Black Swan”) turns the opera and ballet into an impressionanistic portrait in dance for his feature directing and co-writing debut. It’s a sometimes gorgeous saga, more of a riff on “Carmen” and a comment on cultures clashing today than an “adaptation.”
Featuring new music woven into the story, it is built around impressive acting and dancing performances by Melissa Barrera in the title role and Paul Pescal as Aidan, an American Marine who becomes Carmen’s hot-tempered, soldierly lover in this outing.
Co-scripted with a “Birdman” screenwriter and a French soap opera scribe, “Carmen” looks and feels experimental, a movie of action and violence, plot occasionally carried by song but with emotions conveyed through the dance. It’s sprawling and yet simple and rarely stumbles across a trope it doesn’t embrace.
Often as not, “Carmen” is an experiment that works.
We meet Carmen as she’s fleeing some unnamed trouble — perhaps romantic. Her mother (Marina Tamayo) stalls for time, rehearsing flamenco in a gunpoint standoff on a makeshift stage under a tarp behind their house in the desert borderlands of Mexico (but filmed in Australia). Her mother is murdered, but she advised Carmen to flee to L.A., to her “like a sister” friend Masilda. She will help.
First, though, she’s got to cross the border. That’s how Carmen runs into Aidan. He’s an aimless, traumatized combat veteran nagged into taking up volunteer work with other semi-automatic rifle toting veterans, “Huntin’ Mexicans” with the full cooperation of the Border Patrol.
Paired up with a trigger-happy goon with a gun, Aidan defends Carmen and kills the killer. That pairs them up — reluctantly — and puts them on the lam, making their way to “The City of Angels” and stumbling into dancers along the road.
And once there, aging diva and impressario Masilda, played by Almodovar darling Rossy de Palma, could indeed be their salvation. Unless you remember how the opera, ballet etc. turned out.
The dance sequences — indoors and outdoors at sunset or by firelight — are just lovely. Barrera, a veteran of the “Scream” franchise and the musical “In the Heights,” is impressive and utterly credible as the beauty who tempts men beyond reason.
Irish actor Pescal of “Aftersun” and “The Lost Daughter” is similarly credible as a lost soul who stumbles into action, purpose and love when the chips are down.
“Carmen” is more a movie of tableaux and emotions than a story with a clean linear narrative that leads us along moment by moment. It’s so far from being a literal “Carmen” that one can barely call it an adapation.
But those moments and heightened emotions, delivered via dance, tell us a story with more than words. And sometimes the words — in Spanish or in Englihs — are just right, too.
“Remember that the thing you’re running from is almost always the thing you’re running towards.”
Rating: R for violence and nudity and profanity
Cast: Melissa Barrera, Paul Pescal, Marina Tamayo and Rossy de Palma
Credits: Directed by Benjamin Millepied, scripted by Alexander Dinelaris, Loïc Barrere and Benjamin Millepied, based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée and the opera and ballet it inspired. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:57
I Think Melissa Barrera should be casting as White Tiger/Ava Ayala In MCU