Film Review – Carmen
Director/choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen (2022) is not so much an adaptation of the famous novel/opera, but a complete re-imagining that uses the source material as a groundwork. The result is an intoxicating and vibrant sensory experience. Some viewers may be turned off by its poeticism (some might describe it as a “Tone Poem”). But for those looking for something different – something that doesn’t adhere to traditional storytelling conventions – then this might be exactly what they are looking for. Sometimes, the film meanders – as though the narrative were operating as performance art without clear direction. But the acting, music, dancing, and production design are so effective that it was easy to sink into the dreamscape of it all.
Millepied’s direction (along with Alexander Dinelaris and Loïc Barrere’s writing) reconfigures the Carmen story as a romance along the U.S./Mexico border. Elements of musicals and dance productions are incorporated with a twist. There’s a combination of classical and progressive styles. During an underground, bare-knuckle fight scene, the combatants – as well as the spectators – move and bounce around a darkened room. The syncopation of bodies clearly makes this a dance number. The inclusion of musician The D.O.C.’s rap lyrics creates a strange hybrid. It’s as though reality and fantasy has melded into one, where characters can break out into song or dance at any given moment. The fourth wall is broken on several occasions, with performers looking straight into the camera as though they were addressing the audience directly.
The result is a hypnotic, lyrical world. Millepied makes no effort to distinguish between what is happening in reality or fantasy. In this universe, the two are one and the same. Jörg Widmer’s cinematography provides gorgeous imagery, borrowing heavily from the work of Terrence Malick. The expansive plains and deserts of the Southwest feel otherworldly. Characters are placed in silhouette, with the hills and mountain ranges shadowing them in the background. At night, environments cast a sense of impending doom, where danger can be lurking around any corner. The direction will downshift into slow motion, allowing us to spend more time in these places just to take in all the sights and sounds. An everyday place – like a carnival – will take on an atmosphere of the unknown. Millepied and his team have a knack for taking the familiar and making them feel unfamiliar.
At the center is the romance between Carmen (Melissa Barrera) and Aidan (Paul Mescal). Both are running away from their pasts. For Carmen, she has illegally crossed the border into the U.S. in hopes of making it to Los Angeles. A personal tragedy has made it no longer feasible to stay at home in Mexico. Aidan is an ex-Marine suffering from PTSD. His time in the service has left him aimless, with nothing but his memory to keep him company. The two find a kindred spirit with one another, as Aidan helps Carmen make her way north. The blossoming relationship between them is sexy and compassionate, born from experience and loss. They create a kind of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) dynamic. They are not only on the run from outside forces chasing them, but to find their purpose in an increasingly chaotic world.
Barrera and Mescal are two actors quickly rising into stardom. Barrera taps into the musical and dance skills she utilized in In the Heights (2021) but adds a level of melancholy to her performance. Carmen carries the image of her mother (routinely shown performing a Flamenco dance) and uses it to fuel her motivation. She feels the clash between her past and future tugging away inside of her. For Mescal, he proves that his Oscar-nominated work in Aftersun (2022) was not a fluke. He gives Aidan a tenderness underneath a rough and jagged surface. Aidan has a physical presence, where action takes precedence over words. He would rather express himself by hitting a punching bag or by playing his guitar. The fact that he refuses to drink alcohol hints toward inner demons he is struggling to contain. Millepied supplements the acting with clever cinematic touches. When Aidan imagines sand filling the inside of his car, we can sense the things he did in the military calling out to him.
In his feature length debut, Millepied exhibits a keen hand at creating ambiance. His dance choreography, unsurprisingly, is fantastic at conveying the thoughts and feelings of the characters. He’s so good at creating a certain vibe, in fact, that the thematic elements take a hit. There are plenty of topics and issues touched upon, but never fleshed out. At first, we think this to be an immigrant story centered around Carmen, but it doesn’t play out that way. Aidan’s effort to adapt to civilian life is introduced but never really goes anywhere. Is this a “Lover’s On the Run” tale? Kind of, but not really. There are individual moments of beauty and the chemistry between the leads sizzles. But as a whole, the film doesn’t resonate as much as its individual pieces.
Even still, this is an impressive first time outing for Benjamin Millepied. He has taken a classic story and re-invented it from his own unique perspective. While it may leave some baffled, there’s no denying the skill put on display. I’d be very interested in seeing where Millepied goes from here.