THE STORY – Carmen flees the Mexican desert, is rescued by Aidan, and together they struggle to evade the authorities as they head for Los Angeles.
THE CAST – Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal & Rossy de Palma
THE TEAM – Benjamin Millepied (Director/Writer), Alexander Dinelaris Jr. & Loïc Barrère (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
In the middle of nowhere in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, a woman dances flamenco on a makeshift platform. As if conjured by her stomping feet, cars approach, and men with guns step out. Defiant, the woman continues dancing, whipping up a storm of pounding rhythm. But even that isn’t enough to save her. A gunshot rings out, alerting the woman’s daughter, Carmen (Melissa Barrera), that something terrible has happened. The woman tells Carmen to go to a club run by Carmen’s aunt in Los Angeles, where she will be safe. On her journey across the border, though, Carmen and her group of travelers are found by volunteer border patrol, and she only escapes because of the help of Aidan (Paul Mescal), a brutish soldier with a sensitive soul. Now both are on the run from the law. Can they make it to Los Angeles without getting caught by the police? Will they ever be safe again?
Benjamin Millepied’s “Carmen” isn’t so much an adaptation of Bizet’s opera of the same name as it is a radical reimagining of it, taking the opera’s central character and putting her in a completely different time and place. No longer is she a man-eating gypsy pitting two lovers against each other, but a young woman on the run from her past falling in love with someone she shouldn’t. We never learn much about her past, not even why the men in the opening scene were looking for her. We never learn much about any of the characters; in fact, as Millepied, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Loïc Barrère’s screenplay largely eschews dialogue in favor of movement. Reimagining “Carmen” as a border-crossing story mainly told through dance is a gutsy move for one’s debut feature. Still, Millepied is one of the world’s foremost choreographers, and if nothing else, he certainly has a creative vision. Unfortunately, that vision seems to have clashed with the more practical side of making a film in today’s world, as the film falls in something of a no-man’s-land between a complete ballet on film and something more akin to a traditional musical, with dialogue-heavy scenes driving the plot forward in between musical numbers. It’s a brave, striking debut, but one that needed to lean more in one direction or the other in order to be the best version of itself.
The main issue is that we get so little dialogue that lets us into the characters’ inner lives; most of the film’s storytelling is visual, making us feel a certain way by where the characters are standing and how they move within the frame. While this is great at conveying a character’s headspace in the current moment, we don’t really get to know who these people are and why this time in their lives is so important to them. While we get almost none of Carmen’s backstory, we get a bit for Aidan, who we see interact with friends and family early on. He’s clearly suffering from PTSD from his time in military service, but that doesn’t stop him from becoming violent if the situation calls for it. Still, he’d much rather be alone with his guitar than doing anything else. It’s not clear what he sees in Carmen other than her obvious beauty, and while romances have been built on less, the film never really sells this romance as the grand, all-consuming force it was clearly meant to be.
That’s not through any fault on the part of Barrera and Mescal, though. The two actors are among their generation’s most charismatic and are on fire here. Their collective charisma practically burns a hole in the screen, and the chemistry between them sizzles, selling their connection enough to make Aidan following Carmen to Los Angeles make sense. While neither are trained dancers, they are very comfortable in their bodies, and when called upon to dance Millepied’s exciting, complex choreography, they look fantastic. Barrera, in particular, has the aura of a superstar. A gifted actress, she has an inner fire that demands you look at her even when she’s not doing much. She’s irresistible to watch, with a fire behind her eyes that ensures the audience is always aware of Carmen’s inner turmoil. Mescal has a similar watchable quality, although his is a more relaxed vibe than Barrera’s. Despite his strong exterior, Aidan is extremely sensitive, and Mescal always keeps Aidan’s sadness visible behind his eyes, making for a couple of gasp-inducing moments when he actually lets the tears flow later in the film. However, the most essential performance in the film is neither Barrera nor Mescal, but Rossy de Palma as Carmen’s “aunt” Masilda. The legendary actress has an aura of mysticism, and her earthy yet slightly off-kilter screen persona is a perfect fit for the fortune-telling cabaret performer/club owner. The connection she creates with Barrera has the ache of loved ones who have just been reunited by tragedy, a warm bond that feels familial without being motherly. To the extent that “Carmen” works, it is because of how thoroughly the film embraces a magical realist perspective, as in an extended dance sequence set at an old carnival awash with the colors of neon lights, and de Palma’s performance suffuses the film’s back half with that feeling. Her stunning introduction by cabaret number, captured in mostly one take, is applause-worthy not just for the actress’s performance but for the film giving this great actress such a perfect vehicle for her unique screen presence.
That song is one of several in the film written by Julieta Venegas, Taura Stinson, and Tracy “The DOC” Curry in collaboration with the film’s composer Nicholas Britell. Britell’s score is monumental, one of the most dynamic, mythic-sounding scores of the 2000s. The score’s constantly shifting, varied instrumentation would be brilliant on its one, but having two choirs sing some of the lyrics to the original opera and fragmenting them so that they’re barely recognizable – much like what the film itself is doing with the original story – is a stroke of genius. It’s a big task to write a new piece of music to retell one of the world’s most famous, most beloved operas, but Britell accomplishes it, coming up with melodies that recall pieces of Bizet while remaining its own rapturous thing.
Britell may have been Millepied’s chief storytelling collaborator as the composer, but he’s not the only one doing great work. The production design creates several distinctive spaces that shape Carmen and Aidan’s journey, from the carnival mentioned before to Masilda’s club to the site of an underground fight. The costume, hair, and makeup teams create iconic looks for Barrera and de Palma, giving just the right amount of fantasy to their performance clothes. Dany Cooper’s editing does yeoman’s work in connecting the characters and telling their story without the aid of dialogue. Jörg Widmer is no stranger to shooting dance thanks to his work on Wim Wenders’s beautiful “Pina.” His work here is just as good, working with the push-pull motions of Millepied’s choreography to stunning effect. The way the camera moves to capture the dancing not only sweeps up the audience, allowing them to dance alongside the performers but helps to tell the story of Carmen and Aidan’s relationship. Widmer’s use of light is sometimes unspeakably gorgeous, especially in the film’s stunner of a finale, as perfect a cinematic moment as you will find in any film this year. More’s the pity, then, that despite how well-crafted the film is, it never reaches the emotional highs Millepied and his cast and crew are aiming for. Everyone does excellent work trying to get there, but the lack of background for these characters, particularly Carmen, puts the audience at a distance. We are never fully allowed into these characters’ lives to know them on a deeper level than whatever they’re feeling in the moment. While the film’s more experimental qualities may confuse and even turn off some viewers, it will be equally frustrating to others that the film has as much dialogue as it does, elliptical though much of it may be.
It’s exciting to think about what might have been had the film forgone dialogue entirely because, in its best moments, “Carmen” feels like the first film since the 1950s to make good on the promise Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen made with “An American in Paris”: That film can tell a story just through music and movement. “Carmen” proves that Millepied has it in him to make a true masterpiece of a ballet on film, which could very well explode the cinematic form as we know it. The chances he takes in this film are encouraging and get him very close. While “Carmen” may miss the mark of being a masterpiece, it’s a magical debut, one that could very well usher in a new golden age of dance on film. That alone is cause for celebration. The fact that “Carmen” is so stunningly crafted is just the cherry on top.