TIFF: Nicholas Britell rages in Benjamin Millepied’s insane fever dream version of his childhood favorite opera.
Set somewhere between a classical opera, a modern dance piece and a deadly fever dream – between the timeless beauty of ancient myth and the modern day nightmare of current American immigration policies – Benjamin Millepied’s “Carmen” stretches a few too many borders to ever be that feeling of standing on solid ground. And yet, it’s undeniably exciting to see one of the world’s most accomplished choreographers team up with one of its most virtuoso composers (Nicolas Britell) for the kind of aggressive, unclassifiable film that would never exist if these two artists did not know their disciplines going beyond would create yourself.
Loosely inspired by Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera of the same name – so loosely that Millepied sees his film less as a retelling or adaptation than a parallel universe version of Bizet’s tragedy – this “Carmen” shifts the action from the southern tip of Spain to the northern tip of Mexico, reduces the busy story of the source material to the brink of abstraction, transforming its soaring arias into defiant ballets of freedom. Imagine seeing Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and Julie Taymor’s “Titus” dual-projected on the same screen, and you may have a vague idea of the strange no-man’s-land that Millepied’s debut film begins to dance across from the start.
We begin in the Chihuahuan desert, where a proud flamenco dancer named Zilah (Marina Tamayo) conjures up a wild storm from the thin wooden plank beneath her feet while cartel thugs point their guns at her. Moments later, Zilah’s thunderous footsteps – the upcoming film’s wild heartbeat – are replaced by the sound of a single gunshot. Newly orphaned, her beautiful daughter, Carmen (“In the Heights” breakout Melissa Barrera, to do more than cement her star appeal) has no choice but to bolt for the border in the desperate hope of finding sanctuary at a California nightclub could find owned by her godmother.
If it’s easy to imagine why Carmen was met with such violence, the film’s flimsy screenplay — credited to Loïc Barrere, Alexander Dinelaris, Lisa Loomer, and Prosper Mérimée — never bothers to spell it out. It is enough to know that the girl is in great danger, that she is alone in this world and that soulless men are trying to steal her life force. “Always the same man,” intones the cryptic narrative. “His eyes are sad and his heart pumps sand, not blood.”
Aidan, a stricken Afghan War veteran, played by Paul Mescal (the ‘Normal People’ star who appears in another film role that confirms his seriousness, attitude and willingness to ‘fall backwards into the darkness’ like Bill Duke suggesting all that great actors would do) only applies to the first half of this description. Despite his military tattoos and skimpy demeanor, Aidan is not like the other unemployed ex-soldiers in the dusty town where he lives with his sister. He’s a sensitive individual who sings pretty folk songs down by the quarry (Mescal can do that too) and needs to be coaxed into joining the border police on one of their highly militarized night scouts for undocumented immigrants.
When his trigger-happy driver shoots down the other adults in Carmen’s group like they were animals, Aidan responds by shooting him right in the head. So these two strangers find themselves fleeing together in a barbaric world where freedom and survival are locked in a violent pas de deux.
While Carmen may be quirky, Millepied certainly brings a distinct (and clearly confusing) sense of place to the film’s world. His bardo-like vision of America’s southern frontier makes it a fiery and empty wasteland filled with mystical symbols and little niches of salvation. The headlights are bright, the nights are dark, and the boundless horizons are littered with mysterious strangers. From an altruistic taxi driver named Angel to a gravel-voiced underground boxing referee played by Tracy “The DOC” Curry (who raps an original song about a escalating fight scene in which Mescal fights someone to the death while surrounded by krumpers ), all new character our beautiful runaway encounters seems eternal and unreal.
This feverish texture only lasts as long as it is thanks to the tremendous backing “Carmen” receives from Britell’s tempestuous score, conceived along with the screenplay, igniting veritable sandstorms of violins and a French-speaking children’s choir. The music, in turn, lends a palpable poignancy to the body language between Aidan and Carmen as they touch each other; even the way they arrange themselves in and around the stolen truck is a kind of dance.
On the other hand, it’s a very different kind of dance than what Carmen performs with a troupe of nameless women she finds at an empty neon carnival out in the desert. There, in what looks like the remnants of last year’s Burning Man, Barerra wordlessly plunges into a twisting piece of drawn-out choreography that already shows her character finding strength in the community and defiantly determined. After seeing the camera whirl around them, you won’t be the least bit surprised to learn that cinematographer Joerg Widmer also shot Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life.
It’s a shame that the second half of the film locks in Widmer’s camera, as Millepied’s story loses much of its narrative momentum when Aidan and Carmen eventually arrive at La Sombra Pederosa nightclub, where Carmen’s flamboyant godmother Masilda (Almodóvar’s mainstay Rossy de Palma) is on she’s waiting take her under her wing. De Palma is such a horny and candid force of nature in her role that the movie shouldn’t really get more energetic until she arrives, but her sanctuary becomes something of a cabaret-like prison cell when the FBI begins to close in on it.
The nightclub dance numbers blur in a languid haze as the sorority that Masilda provides is never offered the spectacle it needs to come to life in the same way that it did in the first half of the film. Aidan is left on the sidelines while Carmen finds her place, and their relationship withers into a passing fantasy at the point where it’s meant to bind these characters together for eternity. As much as Masilda’s irrepressible humanity shines through the long shadow of American militarism — and as much as her energetic sense of motherhood persists in the face of frightened masculinity — the empty spaces between the film’s more operatic sequences become too deep for these characters to climb out, and their feelings are diluted in the soft glow of the Christmas lights scattered around them.
But when “Carmen” puts its two leads together, anything seems possible. Mescal may not be a trained dancer, but he’s too good an actor for that to matter; He moves with the kind of militaristic physicality an ex-soldier would, and exudes a strength that transforms into love right before our eyes. A moonlit ballet between Aidan and Carmen finds this unique film at its absolute best: a vivid expression of self-belonging in a cruel and hostile world that encourages escape while hopelessly denying them any place to land.
Carmen premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2023.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/carmen-review-benjamin-millepied-1234761097/ Carmen Review: Paul Mescal & Melissa Barrera are lovers on the run