Paul Mescal fans observing their idol’s busy schedule in 2022 could be forgiven for identifying Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen as his potential breakthrough theatrical feature. Mescal gets to dance. He gets to sing. He gets to smoulder. The director, a distinguished French choreographer, also brings Rossy de Palma, Pedro Almodóvar’s muse, to a contemporary reinvention of Bizet’s oft-disinterred opera. That is the sort of thing that gets you noticed.
We know how that worked out. The quieter Aftersun scored Mescal a deserved Oscar nomination and, following a premiere at Toronto, the distinctly ho-hum Carmen now limps towards us with a minimum of hoopla. It’s not a disaster. What we have is a peculiar mash-up of three or four different films, none of which is entirely successful.
Our man plays Aidan, a US veteran of the Afghan wars, who reluctantly signs up to patrol the United States’ southern border with broadly caricatured racist vigilantes. “If we’re out hunting Mexicans shouldn’t we speak Spanish?” someone asks. “Why? Do you speak deer?” comes the reply. A firefight follows; Aidan, his heart not in it, shoots a colleague and heads north with a Mexican firebrand who shares her name with Bizet’s heroine (Melissa Barrera from In the Heights).
You get some sense of the film’s identity crisis early on when Mescal, for no obvious reason, strums an acoustic guitar to a soft melody while sitting on a wall. So it’s a kind of folk musical? Well, no. We never again return to that genre. Following the border flare-up, the film settles into road-movie mode as Aidan and Carmen holed up in noir motels framed in cowboy twilight. Dance sequences burst out of nowhere while, mostly excluded from the flamenco mayhem, Aidan looks on awkwardly – perhaps pondering how he has been rudely and clunkily flung from pseudo-realism into heightened musical epiphany. All of this accompanied by the sort of pyrotechnics – literally, in the sense of too much unsourced fire – you expect from an Olympic opening ceremony. None of these bits fit together. Each is tolerably entertaining on its own terms.
The thermostat is all over the place. Mescal simmers, but room-temperature love scenes make no good use of that potential energy. The songs aren’t bad, but the constant warbling choirs become grating before we’ve made it past San Diego. By the time we get to a final boxing sequence, cut to polite sub-Hamilton hip hop, the deluge of competing genres will have dulled even the most accommodating sensibility. De Palma is good, mind.
Carmen opens in cinemas on Friday, June 2nd