In the beguiling “Carmen,” the film’s images weave a potent narrative of myth, poetry, timelessness, and dreams. The camera frames each shot with exquisite precision, every detail adding to the haunting atmosphere. Jörg Widmer, the cinematographer behind the similarly dreamlike “The Tree of Life,” imbues even the bleakest and most desolate environments with a sense of beauty and romance. Director Benjamin Millepied’s debut feature draws on his expertise as a dancer and choreographer, with electrifying and sensuously filmed dance numbers. Nicholas Britell’s score, punctuated by an angelic choir, offers a touch of the Greek chorus, alternately propelling the characters forward, caressing them, or sounding a warning. This results in a fever dream love story of heartrending allure; fittingly, we learn that the name Carmen signifies poem.
The film opens with a solitary flamenco dancer, her staccato taps echoing like Morse code across a wooden board in the midst of the Mexican desert. She seems to communicate her thoughts on men and their propensity for trouble. Soon, trouble arrives in the form of a man inquiring about a woman’s whereabouts. Unfazed, the dancer quickens her pace, only to be shot by the man.
As she lies dying, the dancer instructs her daughter, Carmen (Melissa Barrera, of the underappreciated “In the Heights”), to find her friend Masilda (Rossy de Palma) in Los Angeles. “If you are my heart,” she says, “she is my spine.” Carmen anoints her forehead with her mother’s blood and embarks on her journey.
The film then shifts to a more contemporary scene, with Aiden (Paul Mescal), a seemingly adrift veteran, barbecuing at a small party. He gently declines a beer from a woman seeking a relationship and playfully teases his sister. At night, he strums his guitar alone in the desert.
Aiden and his friends, acting as uninvited and overzealous volunteer border guards, capture Carmen and shoot her companions. Aiden then kills the man about to shoot Carmen, and they flee together.
Barrera’s graceful and expressive dancing melds seamlessly with Mescal’s emotionally resonant acting, forging a sizzling chemistry. Their characters connect wordlessly, recognizing and responding to the losses they have both endured. Mescal continues to captivate audiences, expertly using posture and movement to define his character. Aiden may have appeared lost, but his sense of honor remains intact. Mescal poignantly reveals Aiden’s emotions as he discovers he may still be capable of love and connection.
The film bears only a faint resemblance to Prosper Mérimée’s classic “Carmen” story, which inspired Bizet’s opera and countless adaptations. Although love and loss lie at the story’s core, the characters and their relationships diverge completely. Aiden and Carmen’s fated romance is only part of the story; Masilda, a formidable dancer and nightclub owner in Los Angeles, plays an equally vital role. She embraces Carmen and Aiden as if they were her long-lost children. Significantly, it is only when Carmen dances with Masilda that she sheds tears for her mother. Millepied places dance at the film’s heart, using it to express the characters’ emotions and convey the narrative. A particularly poignant dance number may not exist within the film’s dreamscape, but it communicates the characters’ unspoken feelings and untold stories.
Millepied’s inclusion of Rossy de Palma, a favorite of Pedro Almodóvar, is also notable. While the film eschews melodramatic plotlines, it shares Almodóvar’s penchant for vibrant colors and stunning settings. The filmmakers embrace passionate emotions, crafting a cinematic experience that truly captivates.
“Carmen” takes the viewer on a journey through love, loss, and the transformative power of dance. The chemistry between Barrera and Mescal ignites the screen, drawing us into their world as they navigate their precarious circumstances. Millepied’s background in dance imbues the film with authenticity and depth, elevating the story to new heights.
With a narrative that pays homage to Mérimée’s classic tale while simultaneously carving its own unique path, “Carmen” is a cinematic gem that showcases the power of love and connection in even the bleakest of circumstances. It is a testament to the strength of human emotion, the beauty of dance, and the magic of cinema.