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Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen is a strange film. Inspired by Bizet’s opera, the French choreographer in his first feature as director has created an experimental fever dream set in the desert lands of the United States-Mexico border. Due for release from Sony Pictures Classics in 2023, it’s an unsteady composition, a frenzied combination of willowy movement pieces, an ecstatic score and a too-loose narrative.
The film follows the improbable love story of Carmen (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights), a Mexican woman trying to cross the border, and Aiden (Paul Mescal, Aftersun), an American veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life. Thrown together by plaintive circumstances, the two find themselves running from the police toward a new life.
In a director’s statement given to critics, Millepied severs his film from the influential opera. This is not a reinterpretation of Bizet’s Carmen, but a completely new experience. Motivated by the French composer’s fatal romance and memories of his mother, Millepied realizes an intense, personal vision.
Carmen is a sandbox for the choreographer’s ideas, a site where movement, music and aesthetic composition convene to tell an emotional story. But even the most outlandish experiments have a purpose, and although Millepied translates his passion in Carmen, he usually deprives us of a point.
The film opens with a pair of bandits pulling up to the front of Carmen’s house, where her mother is performing a zapateado dance. Her syncopated, rhythmic stomping establishes the tension and stakes of Carmen, and we, like these searching men, are momentarily arrested. When the spell is broken, they put a bullet in Carmen’s mother’s head. We never learn why the duo wanted to find Carmen, but we do know that she is emotionally bereft and must journey to Los Angeles, where her mother’s close friend owns a nightclub. Carmen dutifully buries her mother and then sets fire to the house.
Carmen operates in the logic of dreams, which means symbols are everywhere. The fire Carmen sets in Mexico becomes a flame Aiden sees in his small town in the U.S. The transition from a solider in Afghanistan to a civilian in a small town has been rough for Aiden, who spends his days meandering and strumming his guitar. To help his process, Aiden’s older sister, Julieann (Nicole da Silva), gets him a job as a patrolman on a border militia. The members of this arrogant crew compare their role in rounding up migrants to hunters tracking deer.
Aiden meets Carmen on his first and only night on the job. Haunted by the impact of war abroad, he does not share the bloodlust of his partner Mike (Benedict Hardie). So when Mike chases Carmen instead of calling the police, per protocol, Aiden shoots him dead and joins the young woman. Millepied, with the help of DP Jörg Widmer, presents the couple’s journey in rapid blinks: One minute they are driving on the desert roads and the next they are fighting police officers in their motel room.
Barrera and Mescal’s performances arouse the desperation of strangers turned lovers on the run. But when they speak, Carmen becomes less enchanting. The screenplay, written by Millepied, Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman) and Loïc Barrere, relies on clichéd dialogue that turns its characters into caricatures. It also weakens and confuses the narrative, raising too many unnecessary questions about Aiden and Carmen’s motivations and desires.
Carmen is marked most excitedly by ephemerality and experimentation, and that’s only evident when Millepied opts for the language of his bewitching choreography. His dancers’ movements combined with Nicholas Britell’s spellbinding and turbulent score create daring, transfixing montages of limbs in motion.
After hitching a ride from a random taxi driver, Carmen and Aiden happen upon an abandoned fairground, where a group of performers have convened. Aiden observes as his more graceful companion slinks to the center of the group’s ecstatic ritual, spinning and moving hypnotically.
The next time Millepied gives us such a treat is in Los Angeles, where the pair find shelter at La Sombra Pederosa, the club owned by Carmen’s mother’s friend, Masilda (Rossy de Palma, a gift). The venue is a world unto itself, its décor conjuring a dark, sultry mood. When Carmen arrives, Masilda tells her stories from the past and implores the young woman to grieve through dance. Carmen’s efforts result in another of the film’s high points, a penultimate sequence in which she performs a mournful song and dance sequence for a captive audience.
It’s a shame Carmen doesn’t include more of these types of sequences, where the film tips fully into its dreamscape impulses. This is when Millepied’s vision is most confident, when his film’s purpose feels less obfuscated. His Carmen, like Bizet’s, insists on her freedom. But she finds it through inviting grief’s peculiar process and choosing love — sentiments most clear in the haunted, spiritual language of movement.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Production companies: Chapter 2, Goalpost Pictures, TF1 Studio, France 2 Cinéma
Cast: Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, Rossy de Palma, The D.O.C., Benedict Hardie, Richard Brancatisano, Elsa Pataky, Nicole da Silva
Director: Benjamin Millepied
Screenwriters: Alexander Dinelaris, Loïc Barrere, Benjamin Millepied
Producers: Dimitri Rassam, Rosemary Blight, Mimi Valdes
Executive producers: Nicholas Britell, Tim Lafon, Ben Grant, Kylie du Fresne, Matthieu Prada, Lynn Fainchtein, David Lancaster, Stephanie Wilcox, Helen Estabrook, Matthew Gledhill
Director of photography: Jörg Widmer
Production designer: Steven Jones Evans
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editor: Dany Cooper
Casting: Nikki Barrett CGA, CSA
In English, Spanish
1 hour 56 minutes
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