Chemistry is important on and off the black-and-white pages of a screenplay with a romantic story at its core. Benjamin Millepied extracts every ounce of it from the paper and fills every inch of the screen with it in his feature film debut. Carmen is deeply felt, but it’s a tad too narratively lacking to carry those feelings for very long after the credits are finished rolling.
‘Carmen’ re-imagines a classic opera
Carmen (Melissa Barrera) searches for freedom in a re-imagining of Loïc Barrère’s opera. She must flee from the Mexican desert that she’s accustomed to and search out her mother’s longtime friend for help. However, Carmen encounters the U.S. Border Patrol once she crosses into Texas, who are searching for anybody to unleash their violent hatred upon.
Along the way, she meets Aidan (Paul Mescal), who returned to live with her sister after serving in the military overseas. His mind remains on deployment, agreeing to work as a Border Patrol agent to help pull his weight. When he meets Carmen, he’s willing to throw everything away in order to help her venture to Los Angeles to pursue a new life.
Forbidden love and dance
Carmen begins with a mother’s final dance before her death, realizing that it’s in the name of her daughter’s fight for freedom. However, the journey is a long and difficult one with no guarantees of her own survival. She meets other souls seeking a better life on the other side of the border, bringing musicality as a way of calming a young girl panicking in the face of their potential demise. Music and trauma are closely intertwined in a story where expression is both an act of rebellion and a pathway to liberation. It has a sense of religiosity to it that speaks to something much deeper than the journey at hand.
In this narrative of forbidden love, the desert serves as more than a setting. Sand and fire are thematic motifs that run between Carmen and Aidan’s traumas. Together, sand and fire are what destroyed their pasts, but they’re also what will set them free. The pair come from vastly different worlds that theoretically should split them apart, yet it proves to be exactly what pulls them together. Movement in nature, dance, and music are volatile properties that propel them from one point of their journey to the next, for better and worse.
Carmen and Aidan set out on a road trip of sorts. They aren’t always in control of a vehicle, but the mood is there, as they consistently fight over physical and psychological hardships that stand in their way. The lovers barely know one another, yet there’s a magnetic quality between them that fuels their run from the police. There’s no turning back, and the chances of a normal life are gone, with only each other and the open road ahead of them to inform their futures.
‘Carmen’ is bursting with passion, but narratively underwhelming
Millepied approaches Carmen with an artful approach to his storytelling. Nicholas Britell’s chanting score haunts, while Jörg Widmer’s picturesque cinematography exquisitely captures the sun-kissed desert landscapes. Marina Tamayo’s lively dance choreography utilizes interpretive dance to astonishing levels, showing itself as one of the true stars of the film.
Above all else, In the Heights‘ Barrera and Aftersun‘s Mescal share divine chemistry that radiates off the screen. The minimized screenplay leaves plenty of room for them to fill in the blanks, which they do marvelously. Every glance, touch, and movement feels so genuine that you can’t help but fall for the love unfolding in such a desolate place. Meanwhile, Rossy de Palma is an inspired addition to the cast, adding a whole lot of personality to a small role.
“The thing you’re running from is always the thing that you’re running toward,” is said with caution, as Barrera and Mescal are frequently the brightness running into a darkness of uncertainty. However, there’s so little narrative to dig your teeth into that all of the impressive visual and performance efforts are stuck in a vacuum, lacking a well-told story to connect it all together.
Millepied comes from the realm of dance and choreography, having brought that to the world of cinema with Black Swan and the “sandwalk” he created for Dune. This experience brazenly shines through in the way that he navigates this journey through movement. He demonstrates true potential as a visual storyteller, but there needs to be more meat to his characterizations. Carmen is far too understated for its own good, but Barrera and Mescal’s fiery romantic chemistry is irresistible.
Carmen runs into theaters on April 21.