Paul Mescal's next feat is a stunning dance-driven drama that reimagines an iconic opera, was shot in Australia and marks choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s directing debut.
July 13, 2023
Breaking down a classic tale best known as an opera, rebuilding it as a lovers-on-the-run drama set across the US–Mexico border and making every moment burst with emotion, Benjamin Millepied's Carmen is a movie that moves. While its director is a feature debutant, his background as a dancer and choreographer — he did both on Black Swan, the latter on Vox Lux as well, then designed the latest Dune films' sandwalk — perhaps means that the former New York City Ballet principal and Paris Opera Ballet Director of Dance was fated to helm rhythmic, fluid and rousing cinema. His loose take on Georges Bizet's singing-driven show and Prosper Mérimée's novella before it, plus Alexander Pushkin's poem The Gypsies that the first is thought to be based on, is evocative and sensual. It's sumptuous and a swirl of feelings, too, as aided in no small part by its penchant for dance. And, it pirouettes with swoon-inducing strength with help from its stunningly cast leads: Scream queen and In the Heights star Melissa Barrera, plus Normal People breakout and Aftersun Oscar-nominee Paul Mescal.
When Mescal earned the world's attention in streaming's initial Sally Rooney adaptation, he had viewers dreaming of fleeing somewhere — Ireland or anywhere — with him. Carmen's namesake (Barrera) absconds first, then has PTSD-afflicted Marine Aidan (Mescal) join her attempt to escape to Los Angeles. Carmen runs after her mother Zilah (flamenco dancer Marina Tamayo) greets the cartel with thunderous footwork, but can't stave off their violence. Aidan enters the story once Carmen is smuggled stateside, where he's a reluctant volunteer border guard in Texas alongside the trigger-happy Mike (Benedict Hardie, The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson). As the picture's central pair soon hurtle towards California, to Zilah's lifelong friend Masilda's (Rossy de Palma, Parallel Mothers) bar, they try to fly to whatever safety and security they can find. That may be fleeting, however, and might also be in each other's arms.
Mérimée's 1845 work told of blistering passion, as did Bizet's 1875 aria-filled version that's become the first Carmen that usually springs to mind. Indeed, ardour and intensity are among this tale's key traits no matter what format it's in — see also: iconic French filmmaker's 1983 effort First Name: Carmen; the Beyoncé-starring, 2001-released Carmen: A Hip Hopera; and everything prior and since. Millepied, who co-wrote the script with Alexander Dinelaris (an Oscar-winner for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)) and Loïc Barrere (President Alphonse), doesn't buck the trend. Heat and energy beat through his iteration as kinetically as Zilah's heartbeat-mimicking opening number, with the same burning that blazes in Barrera's eyes and as swelteringly as the movie's desert setting (Australia, specifically Broken Hill, standing in for the other side of the world when the film was shot in early 2021 while the pandemic was still wreaking havoc with international borders).
Millepied isn't afraid to be bold with Carmen, clearly. Neither are his collaborators on- and off-screen. Barrera, Mescal and de Palma anchor the former — which also includes Elsa Pataky (Interceptor), Tara Morice (who came to fame with Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom three decades back) and rapper The DOC (Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty) — with such force that to witness them swish through the feature is to feel like you're in their shoes. Barrera and Mescal's chemistry simmers, pivotally. Together and apart alike, each convincingly unpacks the woes and worries paving their characters' struggles in their physicality as much as their words. Enlisting Pedro Almodóvar favourite de Palma is a spectacular coup, of course, and one that makes the La Sombra Poderosa nightclub stretches glimmer and glide with extra zest and potency.
This Carmen doesn't just move — it transports, all while pulsating with emotions usually belted out with gusto in song. The movie's destination: the yearning that pushes Carmen and Aidan's flights towards different lives, the sorrow and desperation that refuses to remain buried in their hearts, the determination to fight and the lusty whirlwind that is their time together. Milliped knows how to immerse his audience in these sensations via his frames, which are so strikingly lensed by Jörg Widmer — a cinematographer with past credits that couldn't better sum up the look and tone of Carmen. Back in 2011, Widmer held the same role on Wim Wenders' big-screen Pina Bausch ode Pina. In 2019, he aided Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life in appearing as visually lyrical as the Badlands and The Tree of Life director's work gets. Carmen is that enamoured with the expressive nature of dance, and with imagery as its own haunting form of poetry. That Carmen means ode and poem in Latin is even verbally mentioned within the feature's dialogue.
To peer at, Carmen is arresting, too, with its backdrop more than a minor reason. The arid expanse that's long made Broken Hill a popular filming destination has previously graced Wake in Fright, Mad Max II, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mission: Impossible II, yet demands fresh eyes as Barrera and Mescal twirl over it with longing. In one particularly stirring scene, the duo cavort and embrace, their bodies as feverish as the golden hues evident in both the soil and sky. Carmen and Aidan come together in a desolate existence, finding — even making — what rays they can, but their romance is as jagged as the rocky, scrubby stretch around them. That Mescal's steps can't quite match Barrera's also feels all the more apt given the locale; it's visibly imperfect, so is his dancing and, of course, Carmen and Aidan's intertwined thrust for a new destiny earns that exact description.
Similarly vivid touches: seeing Carmen's characters unleash such telling body language against such a still background, and the film's rich costumes gleaming against the ochre earth. The camera spies it all, yet never just lingers and passively observes. Rather, the cinematography flows — never more than in that sashaying against the dirt, plus a glowing fairground interlude that plays like a dream, in Masilda's clu,b and also a late boxing sequence that's as throbbing as anything on a makeshift or genuine dance floor. Singing is still a part of this Carmen, spiritedly and affectingly so, but this is a drama with carefully placed songs worked into the narrative rather than a traditional musical. To be more accurate, it's a drama with dance and sometimes lyrics, with the grandly ambitious and layered score by Nicholas Britell (Succession) getting intoxicatingly stormy to match the sea of movement that keeps washing through like waves.
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