Benjamin Millepied’s Reimagining Of Carmen Is A Romantic Fever Dream

Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal in Benjamin Millepied’s ‘Carmen’ (Photo courtesy of TIFF)

Carmen is the filmmaking debut for Benjamin Millepied, and the film received its World Premiere at TIFF 2022. Millepied, noted as a choreographer and dancer, has completely reimagined the opera classic — in fact, there is no opera in the story at all.

Melissa Barrera stars as Carmen, who lives with her mother in the Sonoran Desert near the US border until said mother is murdered. Paul Mescal is Aidan, a military vet with PTSD from the other side of the border. Without giving the details away, the two end up on the run from the law, and in mad love with each other.

The story is thin on details, one scene flowing into another — it’s really not the point in this exercise. Carmen is all about presence, emotion and atmosphere, and there are a number of elements that go into creating what amounts to a kind of feverish dream of love and destiny, veering from realistic to hallucinogenic.

The cinematography heightens the majesty of the desert landscape, but Joerg Widmer‘s camera work draws equal magic out of everyday scenes as well — a dingy hotel room, a run down gas station. It’s a world that is vast in possibility, and that’s why you don’t mind a thin story line. The visuals carry a lot of the weight in this film.

Rossy de Palma in Bejamin Millepied's 'Carmen' (Photo courtesy of TIFF)
Rossy de Palma in Bejamin Millepied’s ‘Carmen’ (Photo courtesy of TIFF)

The opera’s story arc has been modified, while sticking to the original’s strong themes of the lives of the working class, and political power struggles that affect them. Millepied wrote the script with Alex Dinelaris (Birdman) and Loïc Barrère, taking their inspiration from the original story by Prosper Mérimée.

Naturally, Millepied being the former director of dance at the Paris Opéra Ballet, there is dance in the film. The contemporary dance numbers act to flesh out the emotions of the story, and it’s where the film comes together best — particularly the emotional pas de deux between Barrera and Mescal. Mescal is not a professional dancer, but he’s believable and conveys the character well.

My one criticism of the film overall is that it could have used more dance sequences.

The music is penned by American composer Nicholas Britell, best known for his Oscar-nominated scores for Barry Jenkins’ films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Although there’s nothing you would call operatic in the score, he uses choral ensembles and other classical elements that add to the movie’s evocative tone. In the choral pieces, a choir sings excerpts of the original lyrics to Bizet’s opera in French. The soundtrack also includes songs co-written with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas, and award-winning songwriters Taura Stinson and Tracy “the D.O.C.” Curry.

Barrera sings in the movie, as does Rossy de Palma, who deserves special mention for the screen presence she adds to the film alone. De Palma is a Spanish actress best known for her work in movies by Pedro Almodóvar. She plays Carmen’s godmother, who owns a flashy nightclub where the lovers on the run take refuge.

Born in France and trained in the US, Benjamin Millepied has choreographed extensively for films and the stage, perhaps most famously for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, where he danced with — and later married — Natalie Portman.

Some will hate the film for its lack of traditional plot devices, but it’s a promising first foray for Millepied into a different kind of storytelling.

There’s one more TIFF screening on Sunday, September 18. Sony Picture Classics plans to release the film in 2023.

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