Dance of Doom: Lovers on the Run in Passionate, Revisionist Carmen

It has been quite some time since the movies have seen a love story performed with this much heat, but recent Oscar nominee Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera, as doomed lovers on the run, make an incendiary couple.

6 mins read

The first thing to know about Benjamin Millipied’s blazing new Carmen is that it’s a liberal derivation of Bizet’s 1875 masterwork of jealousy, obsession and death. Once Bizet traditionalists depart from expectation, Millipied’s update, which reimagines Bizet’s titular Spanish opera icon though a modern Mexican-American lens, is an undeniably innovative big screen love story so technically audacious and performed with such conviction it is impossible to not be swept away on its wave of grand theatricality.

New York City Ballet choreographer and dancer Millipied, a first time film director, mounts a confident, colorful, genre-bending exercise in style and feeling, combining healthy doses of vivid music (courtesy of a boldly present score by Nicholas Britell) several masterfully expressive dance sequences and an overall aura of poetic despair, writ romantically large.

It has been quite some time since the movies have seen a love story performed with this much heat, but recent Oscar nominee Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera, as doomed lovers on the run, make an incendiary couple here as a border dwelling, PTSD-scarred former Marine and a traumatized Mexican immigrant seeking a new life in Los Angeles. You simply cannot look away from them. Both look, act and move so seductively they almost burn the screen.

Picture opens in rural northern Mexico Chihuahuan Desert as dancer Zilah (Marina Tamayo), performing a stripped down flamenco of intense, percussive precision is gunned down by a mysterious pair of cartel criminals. Her distraught daughter, Carmen (Barrera), vows to keep her promise to leave home for a new life in Los Angeles, burning down their tiny home and heading north to the border.

On the U.S. side we meet haunted Afghanistan vet Aidan (a terrific Mescal), toiling the days in a sullen funk, strumming his guitar in solitude and carefully monitored by doting older sister Julieanne (Nicole da Silva), who encourages him to rejoin the world of the living. Her goading leads him to put his combat skills in service of the local militia, who aiding the U.S. Border Patrol enact Draconian punishment upon immigrants at the New Mexico border. On Aidan’s first nighttime trip, buddy Mike (Benedict Hardie) shoots to kill, and in that moment Aidan rescues Carmen, fleeing death in their wake.

On the run and hiding out, the pair make their way to Los Angeles, the home of Carmen’s godmother Masilda (a sensational Rossy de Palma), a dancer who runs an exotic club featuring terrifically choreographed production numbers, expressionistic intervals to the drama underlining the lovers fateful crucible. Millepied goes for broke here with seductive, elaborate dance sequences that play like hothouse fever dreams of color, sensuality and movement, memorably including an impromptu number set at a late-night carnival, a desert locale roundelay of romantic simplicity and a poignant, push-pull amidst tragedy.

For all its heightened aesthetic and grandly melodramatic flourishes, a stylistic amalgam that won’t be for everyone, Carmen works principally on a casting coup of perfection, and both Barrera, the terrific Mexican actress-singer-dancer and star of In the Heights and the Scream series, and Mescal, the Irish star who exploded in last year’s Aftersun and enlivened The Lost Daughter, displaying a believable commitment to Carmen‘s tragic romance. Each is adept at subtly underplaying without “acting,” instead going inward to etch, often in delicate reactions, what lies beneath. This initially seems curious given Millepied’s upscaled emotionality (which de Palma has in spades), but the pair manages to create a genuine intimacy amidst their director’s frequent maximalism.

Mescal and Barrera are so engaging together they remind us of the inexorable pull believable screen lovers can have on us, making onscreen love with unbridled sensitivity and creating the tenderest currents where even the touch or release of a hand between dance partners, or on a bare torso or bloodied wound, is palpable. If chemistry between romantic leads in the movies today is all but lost, it is abundantly on display here.

Undoubtedly Millepied’s audacity of vision will befuddle some that may lose patience with the filmmaker’s risk-taking, perhaps most in a delirious final fistfight turned hip-hop dance presided over by rapper The D.O.C. No matter. Carmen, strangely and defiantly original, is the sort of daring tour of imagination that makes it a standout in current American cinema. It will be remembered as one of the movie year’s true expressions of creative genius.

3 1/2 stars

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