Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 18, 2023 7:17 am 
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Millepied "reimagines" Carmen, with mixed success

Benjamin Millepied, the dancer and choreographer, has now directed a feature film in striking wide aspect ratio. It is a "complete reimagining" of the story, and the opera, of Carmen starring Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, and others. Critics either find it marvelous or utterly hate it; there seems to be little middle ground.

Not being that kind of viewer myself, I swung back and forth throughout, but the movie's length had an unfortunate effect. It, or Milllepied, doesn't know where or how to end his story of Aidan, an Afghan war vet (Mescal) and a Carmen, a beautiful Mexican border-crosser (Barrera) who run away together when he commits a crime (and she is illegal) and wind up in Los Angeles with a colorful friend of Carmen's (Barrera's) mother, who runs a club. The lady is called Masilda, and is played by the Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma. The club, like the lady, is colorful, but it's also a trap for Carmen and Aidan - and the story.

The film is frequently gorgeous and lively, grabbing the attention from the get-go with an arresting Flamenco-style dance on a wooden platform in the middle of the desert. Living near the border, Aidan is pushed to the "only job in town," being a volunteer (but how is that a job?) for the Border Patrol, where he shoots a racist white bad guy who kills illegal Mexicans just like deer. The wide-screen images are both theatrical and intensely real. The music is sweeping and beautiful. There are dance interludes, regarded by critics alternately either as the only thing that works or an annoying distraction; perhaps they're both. There is a chorus that adds sweep to the score. It does this a bit too often. But then, this never seems anything but an opera.

Indeed Millepied's film, with its "experimental dreamscape," is kin to some of the great musical-dance screen swoons, such as Powell-Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), and Tales of Hoffmann (1951). It is not as entrancing as those: its musical numbers aren't as fully realized and unified and its story line, which is vague and wavers, isn't as electrifying.

This is still a very entertaining, beautiful film, but it's not an unqualified success - though if you like movie musicals with dance you shouldn't miss it. For one thing, it's another notch in the belt for the up and coming Irish actor Mescal, who is already known for the much-admired Irish TV series "Normal People," and for Aftersun, which is one of the best movies of 2022 and very close to a masterpiece. Note, I'm not saying this one is a masterpiece: it's more like a gorgeous failure.

As the filmmakers acknowledge, this Carmen has nothing to do with the novel by Prosper Mérimée, nor with Bizet's opera. It's conceived as a series of. . . sequences. There are three writers listed, Loïc Barrere, Alexander Dinelaris, and Lisa Loomer, but whatever they strung together is more a excuse for striking scenes. I can't get the attention-getting Flemenco-dance on the wooden platform out of my head, and the Border Patrol debacle that throws Aidan and Carmen together is intensely, vividly staged. Everything is a dance, including of course the actual dances. But "vividly staged" doesn't equal a full-on, unforgettable Powell-Pressberger-style set piece and it all tends to fade into vague but pleasant memory apart from the few most intensely realized and important moments.

Eventually Mescal, who can sing but isn't a dancer, is drawn into a dance with Barrera, and it works pretty well. All the scenes with him have featured his muscular arms, along with his plain, but curiously striking face, so bringing his full body into play is no surprise. Above all this film makes one want to see more of Paul Mescal, whose arrestingly humble, interior presence is interesting. But the movie is too long, and its momentum is never quite convincing.

The preview material about this film on the French movie website AlloCiné says "if you like this film, you might like..." and lists, entre autres, Carlos Saura's Carmen. But that masterpiece will completely wipe away Millipied's pleasing but mild effort, as will the others listed, Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour, Shine, and Black Orpheus. This Carmen may nonetheless do better in France: Millepied will be able to promote it in French, and that will help, and they may notice less how lame the English and subtitled Spanish dialogue is.

Carmen, 118 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2022 and showed at three other festivals. It releases in US theaters April 21, 2023.

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