TIFF22: ‘Carmen’ Review: A Gorgeous Operatic Adaptation

If you’re a figure skating fan and have the Carmen score stuck in your head every year, the modern operatic re-imagining may be for you. Benjamin Millepied has taken everything wrong with the source material, and given it new life. If you’re looking for plot or character development, you won’t find it here. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whether or not Carmen stands up as a worthy adaptation, it is nothing less than a gorgeous work of art.

This modern re-telling of the classic opera features Melissa Barrera in the titular role. In this adaptation, she’s a refugee, fleeing to the United States after her mother is murdered. Don José is given new life by Paul Mescal as Aidan, a veteran who becomes a mercenary illegal border patrolman. Together, they embark on an otherworldly journey, running from the law and falling in love. Commentary regarding whether this is an effective way to frame this narrative needs to be left strictly to those directly affected by these real-world issues.

As an opera, Carmen has a long and winding history, that’s not all positive by any stretch. In the modern world, it’s frankly alarming that a story centring anti-Roma hate is allowed to be given such an uncritical reception, and still hailed as a masterpiece. This analysis, however, should be left strictly to the Roma people, as they face continued violent discrimination to this day. However, Millepied successfully reframes parts of the story. For example, Carmen isn’t painted as an enchantress casting a spell over an honourable officer of the law. The ending is also…fixed, without giving too much away.

The real star of this movie is Masilda. Rossy de Palma is a revelation in this role, and she remains the heart and soul of the entire story. This epic is not about the characters, not in any real sense. However, Masilda is magnetic each time she’s on screen, and pulls focus away from anything else that might be happening. Only an actor with de Palma’s presence could pull this off effectively. 

The choreography is really what makes this movie stand out. Millepied is able to play to his strengths in a gorgeous way. Each dance featured throughout the movie is a story within itself. There’s intentional visual storytelling, which is magnetic to watch. The sheer variety of techniques that are showcased is enough to keep any dance aficionado on the edge of their seat. Each dancer is given the chance to showcase their strongest abilities. The focus on dance and movement over dialogue ultimately makes this a better story, considering the source material. 

The stunning visuals tie everything together in what could otherwise be an incredibly disjointed story. The use of space transports the viewer, and is ultimately an immersive experience. The scene changes are jarring, but it makes sense within the context of the story being told. The use of colour within each set is also an effective way to tell a self-contained story. 

Carmen could have been a complete mess. Instead, it is an ethereal work of art. The lack of character development, dialogue, and plot doesn’t hinder the movie at all. Instead, the movement, settings, and brilliant visuals invite viewers to engage on a deeper level with the characters about whom we know very little. And yet, we know all that we need to. Enjoy the beauty here. The world needs it now.

Carmen had its World Premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival

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