A beguiling amalgam of classic opera sensibility, modern dance performance, and Badlands-esque, lovers-on-the-run romantic tragedy, Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen is a deeply idiosyncratic and electrifying film that nonetheless struggles to locate a governing artistic cogency. Very loosely inspired by Georges Bizet’s seminal opera, Millepied’s film takes more spiritual than material inspiration from that work, recalculating its narrative to befit our present age. In an intoxicating opening sequence, a woman dances on an empty stage set in the middle of a barren and dusty Mexican desert. A car penetrates the scene, two gun-toting men hopping out to demand the whereabouts of a she. The woman defiantly finishes her dance, and is promptly shot in the head. Nearby, Carmen (Melissa Barrera) hears the gunshots, understands her mother is dead, and continues on her trek to and across the U.S. border. Meanwhile, Aidan (Paul Mescal), a marine who seems to be struggling to adjust to non-deployment, heads out into the dark to commence his first evening of volunteer border patrol duty. When a gung-ho buddy reveals his motivations to be purely homicidal, Aidan intervenes, saving Carmen’s life and tethering the two as marked fugitives. And so, off they go, headed to Los Angeles, where Carmen hopes to find freedom and a connection to her past.
Interestingly, Millepied chooses to roughly retain the opéra comique style of Bizet’s work, stripping the film’s dialogue to a bare minimum, leaving it to the interstices between the film’s numerous dance sequences. It’s a savvy, confident maneuver, and necessary: the film’s limited dialogue consistently proves distractingly awful. Carmen is immediately gauche in its thematic and narrative details — border patrol guards refer to their work as “hunting Mexicans,” which is likely more distressingly accurate than we’d like to believe, but is also broad in a way that seems antagonistic of the film’s aims to abstract its narrative through the art of movement. And when the writing isn’t establishing easy villains just so that we’re assured of the main characters’ function as tragic ciphers, we’re treated to kindly cab drivers who dispense such wisdom as: “Always remember that the thing you’re running from is also always the thing you are running towards.” One could perhaps argue that this tilt toward the melodramatic is in keeping with the operatic form, but cinema has long struggled to reconcile the two mediums — few attempts rise to the level of something like, say, Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni — with attempts at translation often landing squarely in cornball territory.
The first-time feature director thankfully helps mitigate this earsore nonsense by assembling an ace technical team. A former principal with the New York City Ballet and director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Millepied’s choreography work in Carmen is consistently surprising and stunning, and his collaboration here with composer extraordinaire Nicholas Britell — with whom he co-founded the L.A. Dance Project — and DP Jörg Widmer (A Hidden Place, Pina) makes for a film that is nothing short of exquisite, both visually and sonically. The camerawork is nearly a character (and dancer) in its own right, restless and kinetic, swirling through the film’s spaces and around characters with its own balletic grace. The approach makes for a nice marriage with Millepied’s choreo work, which tends more toward restraint and emotional invocation than any immodest bombast.
On the other hand, Carmen doesn’t mount much of a defense for those who would accuse it of oversaturation. Indeed, the film is aestheticized within an inch of its life — there’s nary a physical space that isn’t colored by gauzy downlighting, and the characters seem inclined only to visit places like carnivals, where, for instance, puddled reflections of neon lights are used to lend an appealing but mostly affected noirish texture. Still, too many directorial debuts have been bested by the siren call of good taste, and Millepied’s go-for-broke aspiration toward impressionism manifests a fever dream quality that makes for a genuinely novel, oftentimes surreal, viewing experience.
But even for those sold on Carmen’s hyper-colored, vibes-driven approach to filmmaking, there’s a lack of cohesion that lowers the movie’s ceiling. In isolation, each dance sequence delivers impressive technical work at minimum, and suggests Millepied understands how to use the visual medium to both enhance and coalesce with the art of dance. As a whole, however, coherence is somewhat wanting. Take one of the film’s final such numbers, which finds Aidan in an underground, bare-knuckle brawl in a desperate bid to earn money. Britell’s score here moves into decidedly more propulsive territory, with Aidan engaging in bloody, brutal melee and a circle of observers dancing in a kind of modified krump style, all while The D.O.C. (as the evening’s de facto emcee) gravelly raps, “Beat his ass, get him / Kill his ass, kill him.” It’s a thrilling sequence in its own right, but one that feels somewhat inorganic, not in any kind of artistic or aesthetic conversation with the film’s earlier dance numbers. Still, modern cinema would be a better place were more directors to take risks the way Millepied does — though an even bolder film would have dispensed with dialogue entirely — and the director ends his film with its most moving moment yet. Mescal at last joins Barrera in dance, his limitations conjuring the profound, flawed humanity at the root of Carmen, earning its tragedy and signing the film off in an absolute place of grace.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.