Carmen review: "Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera strike sparks"

Paul Mescal and Marissa Barrera in Carrmen
(Image: © Sony)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Despite Mescal and Barrera’s sparks, this adaptation never quite ignites.

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Benjamin Millepied’s feature directorial debut doesn’t just reimagine Georges Bizet’s classic opera Carmen, it completely reinvents it. Doing away with its music, plot, and setting, this version takes place on the Mexican/US border, a locale established through scorching vistas that feel as if they could catch fire at any moment.

And at points, they literally do. When Carmen steps onto the screen in the form of Scream 6 star Melissa Barrera – radiant as a young woman reeling with grief over her mother's murder - she sets her home alight. Leaving her past behind, she flees across the border and into the path of Paul Mescal’s Aidan, a former soldier struggling to adjust to civilian life. 

The Aftersun star’s blistering performance exudes frustrated masculinity as he waltzes around in his Stanley Kowalski-style vest top, while his chemistry with Barrera sizzles as the pair end up on a cross-state chase from the law. 

Dancer-turned-director Millepied captures their passionate journey through a series of emotional dance sequences that echo his impressive choreography for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Dream-like moments weave movement through the narrative in a series of bold arrangements; particular stand-outs are a neon-streaked fairground scene and a rap-narrated boxing match. As the tragedy – one of the few held-over themes from the original – unfolds, their story culminates in a dust-filled desert dance that lingers long after the credits roll. 

Yet despite the leads’ chemistry, Carmen doesn’t manage to turn these sparks of brilliance into something bigger. The focus on dance over dialogue doesn't help a meandering plot that never feels like it’s getting anywhere. And while the Mexican/US border offers ripe context for political discourse, the script only scratches the thematic surface. 

Perhaps the biggest issue is the underuse of the leads’ musical talents. Barrera’s captivating rendition of 'Tú y Yo' and Mescal’s soulful 'Slip Away' teases their potential. Elsewhere, though, the lack of earworms means that for an adaptation (however loose) of one of the world’s most famous operas, this comes up short. 

Carmen is in selected UK cinemas from June 2. For more upcoming movies, here's our guide to 2023 movie release dates.

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Fay Watson
Deputy Entertainment Editor

I’m the Deputy Entertainment Editor here at GamesRadar+, covering TV and film for the Total Film and SFX sections online. I previously worked as a Senior Showbiz Reporter and SEO TV reporter at Express Online for three years. I've also written for The Resident magazines and Amateur Photographer, before specializing in entertainment.