There’s a man in a jacket fashioned out of large reflective sequins, a woman clad in black dancing in the desert, a sparsely populated nightclub in Los Angeles, a bare-knuckle fight to the death in a warehouse, and two lovers on the run. These are but a few of the sumptuous and somewhat surreal images populating Benjamin Millepied’s beautiful, atmospheric, but not entirely compelling Carmen.

Based on Prosper Mérimée’s 19th-century novella, Millepied’s Carmen is set in the modern day, on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, with Carmen (Melissa Barrera) making her way north, where she meets Aiden (Paul Mescal). Aiden is a U.S. Marine with two tours of Afghanistan under his belt and visions of sand swallowing his sanity. Aiden recedes from the world but is pulled into thanks to Mike (Benedict Hardie), a volunteer border patrol agent who takes his sense of service as an excuse for racially charged cruelty. That’s where fate twists Aiden and Carmen’s threads, and the two go on the run, from place to place, protecting angel to protecting angel (notably Rossy de Palma), until they land in L.A. where Carmen finds her voice, and Aiden finds a way to earn a little money.

It all feels pretty preordained. A chorus of voices, composed by Nicholas Britell, follows Aiden and Carmen wherever they go, while Millepied and cinematographer Jörg Widmer seem more interested in capturing all that sparkles around the two leads than the actors themselves. Occasionally, they shine: a dance sequence between Aiden and Carmen in the desert surrounded by nothing more than sand and sky is visually arresting. Millepied, known primarily as a dancer and choreographer—Carmen is his debut as a feature director—constructs these moments with a knowing eye. But the characters are so thinly drawn there is little to explore. Even Aiden’s PTSD and Carmen’s ghostly mother (Marina Tamayo) are used more for visual dynamics than to explain anything about them as a person.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Carmen (2022)
Directed by Benjamin Millepied
Screenplay by Loïc Barrere, Alexander Dinelaris, Lisa Loomer
Inspired by the novella by Prosper Mérimée
Produced by Rosemary Blight, Dimitri Rassam, Mimi Valdes
Starring: Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, Rossy de Palma, Benedict Hardie, Marina Tamayo 
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 116 minutes, Opens in limited release May 12, 2023