Lyrical and dream-like, this reimagining of the classical story shifts its frame to the U.S./Mexican border, with Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal as star-crossed lovers running from their fate.
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I’m not an opera buff, but you don’t have to be one to experience “Carmen,” the new feature film from rookie director Benjamin Millepied. Other than the title, the basic premise of star-crossed lovers and a few smatterings of music, there is no relation to the opera or the novella upon which it is based.
Instead, the framing is shifted to the U.S./Mexico border, as a strong-willed young woman, Carmen (Melissa Barrera), flees her homeland after the murder of her mother to seek solace with a family friend in Los Angeles. Along the way, she gets caught up in a violent encounter with xenophobic border zealots and winds up on the run from authorities with Aidan (Paul Mescal), a wayward former Marine.
Millepied is a dancer-choreographer (“Black Swan”) who’s been doing an apprenticeship directing short film formats in preparation for tackling features. He cowrote the story/screenplay with Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Loïc Barrère and Lisa Loomer.
The filmmakers are much more interested in lyrical, dream-like evocation than straight narrative storytelling. Characters will suddenly break into dance, sometimes to perform for an audience but often for no reason at hand. At one point, Carmen meets up with a group of carnival performers and communicates their plight entirely through interactive movements.
Barrera obviously has a musical background and performs her dances beautifully, and even sings during one number. Mescal, who broke out with an Oscar nomination for last year’s “Aftersun,” does not have the dancing gene. (Though he also sings a song, and quite well.) His character mostly stays in the background watching Carmen do her thing, though they share a passionate exchange near the end.
In many ways this version of “Carmen” is more of a ballet than any other art form.
I’ll be transparent and say this is not my sort of thing. I enjoy dancing sequences in movies that move the story along, with “Singin’ in the Rain” being the classic example. Minute after minute of people twisting and twirling and doing artful prestidigitations with their hands… I tend to be impressed at the skill required at first, but soon the eyes glaze over and the finger itches for the fast-forward button.
That’s me. Maybe this is your sort of thing, or you will find yourself getting more wrapped up in the passionate displays the characters make of their bodies.
The non-dancing portions of the movie are strong enough to make me want more of them. It’s never explained exactly why the thugs in Mexico want to kill Carmen and her mother, but it gives an empathetic note to her character. Even more than running away from them, she’s trying to define herself and find a home, both figuratively and literally.
Aidan is a more troubled soul. After tours in Afghanistan he’s left rootless and jobless. He’d prefer to just hang out with his fellow ex-Marines and strum on the guitar, but his sister insists they need to make rent and suggests he try out for a job with the Border Patrol by taking part in a volunteer patrol.
This results in a terrible (and not entirely credible) encounter between Carmen’s group of migrants and Aidan’s armed bullies. He ends up killing one of his own to protect Carmen, and soon they’re on the lam together.
They make it to L.A. and the home/club of Masilda, a friend of Carmen’s mother played by Rossy de Palma, a favorite actress of Pedro Almodóvar with a distinctive mien. She immediately treats Carmen as a long-lost daughter, and looks upon Aidan as a delectable snack she’d like to bite into.
But Aidan knows the authorities will eventually find them, so even as he and Carmen’s relationship evolves from adversaries to allies to lovers, there’s a fatalistic component to it.
This is accented by visions Aidan experiences involving sand and reflections, first spying a man in the desert wearing a coat of many pieces of glass. He often imagines the sand is closing in around him, covering his hands or feet.
If Carmen is on a vision quest, Aidan is fighting to break out of the box the vagaries of life have placed him in, with his relentless will and skill at violence the only tools he knows.
There’s much to admire about this reimagining of “Carmen” — so long as you’re willing to experience it as more of a mood than a movie.