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‘Carmen’ Review: Lovers on the Run in Benjamin Millepied’s Unclassifiable Dance Odyssey

TIFF: Nicholas Britell goes absolutely wild in Benjamin Millepied's delirious fever dream version of his favorite childhood opera.




Located somewhere between a classic opera, a modern dance piece, and a deadly fever dream — between the timeless beauty of ancient myth and the modern nightmare of America’s current immigration policies — Benjamin Millepied’s “Carmen” is stretched across a few too many borders to ever feel like it’s standing on solid ground. And yet, it’s undeniably exhilarating to watch one of the world’s most accomplished choreographers team up with one of its most virtuosic composers (Nicolas Britell) for the kind of aggressively unclassifiable movie that would never exist if not for these two artists reaching beyond their disciplines to create it themselves.

Loosely inspired by Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera of the same name — so loosely, in fact, that Millepied thinks of his film as less of a re-telling or adaptation than he does a version of Bizet’s tragedy from a parallel universe — this “Carmen” moves the action from the southern tip of Spain to the northern cusp of Mexico, pares the source material’s busy story down to the brink of abstraction, and transmutes its soaring arias into defiant ballets of freedom. Imagine watching Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and Julie Taymor’s “Titus” double-projected on the same screen and you might have a vague idea of the strange no-man’s land that Millepied’s debut feature begins dancing across from the moment it starts.
We begin in the Chihuahuan desert, where a proud flamenco dancer named Zilah (Marina Tamayo) summons a ferocious storm from the flimsy wooden board underneath her feet as cartel goons draw their guns on her. A few moments later, Zilah’s thundering steps — the wild heartbeat of the film to come — are replaced by the sound of a single gunshot. Newly orphaned, her beautiful daughter Carmen (“In the Heights” breakout Melissa Barrera, more than cementing her star appeal) has no choice but to make a break for the border in the desperate hope that she might find refuge at a California nightclub owned by her godmother.

If it’s easy to imagine why such violence has been visited upon Carmen’s life, the film’s threadbare screenplay — credited to Loïc Barrere, Alexander Dinelaris, Lisa Loomer, and Prosper Mérimée — never bothers to spell it out. It’s enough to know that the girl is in grave danger, that she’s alone in this world, and that soulless men are trying to steal her lifeforce. “Always the same man,” the cryptic narration intones. “His eyes are sad, and his heart pumps sand, not blood.”

Aidan, a haunted Afghanistan War vet played by Paul Mescal (the “Normal People” star appearing in yet another film role that affirms his gravitas, his poise, and his willingness “to fall into darkness backwards,” as Bill Duke would suggest that all great actors do), only fits the first half of that description. Despite his military tattoo and terse demeanor, Aidan isn’t like the other unemployed ex-soldiers in the dusty town where he lives with his sister. He’s a sensitive soul who sings pretty folk songs down by the quarry (Mescal can do that, too) and has to be pressured into joining the Border Patrol on one of their highly militarized night scouts for undocumented immigrants.

When his trigger-happy driver guns down the other adults in Carmen’s group as if they were animals, Aidan responds by shooting him square in the head. Just like that, these two strangers find themselves on the run together in a barbarous world where freedom and survival are locked in a violent pas de deux.

While “Carmen” may be light on specifics, Millepied certainly lends the film’s world a distinct (and distinctly disorienting) sense of place. His bardo-like vision of America’s southern border renders it as a fiery and empty wasteland full of mystic symbols and small pockets of salvation. The headlights are bright, the nights dark, and the limitless horizons are littered with mysterious strangers. From an altruistic cab driver named Angel to a gravel-voiced underground boxing referee played by Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry (who raps an original song over a climactic fight scene in which Mescal fights someone to the death while surrounded by Krumpers), every new character our beautiful runaways encounter seems eternal and unreal.

That febrile texture is only sustained for as long as it is thanks to the enormous assist that “Carmen” gets from Britell’s tempestuous score, which was conceived in tandem with the script and creates veritable sandstorms from violins and a French-language children’s choir. The music in turn lends a palpable viscerality to the body language between Aidan and Carmen as they feel each other out; even the way they arrange themselves around in and around the truck they steal is a kind of dance.

Then again, it’s a very different kind of dance from the one that Carmen performs with a troupe of nameless women she finds at an empty neon carnival out in the desert. It’s there, in what looks like the remnants of last year’s Burning Man, that Barerra wordlessly launches herself into a spinning piece of long-take choreography that already shows her character finding strength in community, and resolve in defiance. After watching the camera twirl around them, you will not be the least bit surprised to learn that cinematographer Jörg Widmer also shot Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.”

It’s a shame that the film’s second half boxes Widmer’s camera in, as Millepied’s story loses much of its narrative momentum when Aidan and Carmen finally arrive at the La Sombra Pederosa nightclub, where Carmen’s flamboyant godmother Masilda (Almodóvar mainstay Rossy de Palma) is waiting to take them under her wing. De Palma is such a horny and heartfelt force of nature in her role that the movie should only get more energetic once she arrives, but her refuge becomes a bit of a cabaret-like prison cell as the feds begin to close in around it.

The dance numbers at the nightclub blur together in a languorous haze as the sisterhood that Masilda provides is never afforded the spectacle it needs to come to life in the same way as the movie’s first half. Aidan is left to stand on the sidelines as Carmen finds her place, and their relationship withers into a passing fancy at precisely the point that it’s meant to bond these characters together in eternity. Much as Masilda’s irrepressible humanity shines through the long shadow of American militarism — and much as her forceful maternalism persists in the face of frightened masculinity — the empty cavities of space between the film’s more operatic sequences grow too deep for these characters to climb their way out, and their emotions get diluted into the soft glow of the Christmas lights strewn around them.

But when “Carmen” puts its two leads together, anything seems possible. Mescal may not be a trained dancer, but he’s too good of an actor for that to matter; he moves with the kind of militaristic physicality the way that an ex-soldier would, exuding a strength that gets transformed into love right before our eyes. A moonlit ballet between Aidan and Carmen finds this singular movie at its absolute best: A vivid expression of self-belonging in a cruel and hostile world that encourages people to take flight while hopelessly depriving them of any place to land.

Grade: B-

“Carmen” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in 2023.

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