May 11, 2023
There's a connection deeper than just skin on skin whenever hands touch within Benjamin Millepied's Carmen, which finds its way into theaters this spring after its world premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. The joining of two hands combines two personal stories into one, as each person shares their hopes, fears, and desires with the other. It is both physically and emotionally sensual, if also at times pretentious and unwieldy.
The story of the titular character has come a long way on the screen since its novella and operatic inception by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy in 1845, and Georges Bizet in 1875, respectively. Before he made his name with monumental productions like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille steered a lean 65-minute version in 1915. Director Otto Preminger would cause much controversy with his all-black version in 1954, with star Dorothy Dandridge becoming the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Other versions by Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Towne have followed in the decades since.
But along with Pinocchio, which saw new versions by Guillermo del Toro, Robert Zemeckis, and *shudders* Pauly Shore, 2022 (and 2023) seems to be the year of Carmen. Writer/director Valerie Buhagiar told the character's story closely to the original Bizet opera in her 2022 version (premiering earlier in the year at the Cinequest Film Festival), placing the action in contemporary Spain. Now Millepied has crossed the pond with his adaptation, setting it on the southern United States border.
Melissa Barrera (who plays Sam in the new Scream movies) is the titular character, now a Mexican immigrant running from the criminals that have killed her mother. She crosses paths with a sympathetic border guard (Paul Mescal, proving that the one thing he can’t do flawlessly is speak with an American accent) who also feels a need to flee his surroundings. The makeshift pair hope to arrive at the Los Angeles nightclub owned by Carmen's dear family friend (Rossy de Palma). The heat of the chase between them and the police is only equaled by their rising passion for each other, with music and dance being their love language.
Millepied is the husband of Natalie Portman and served as the choreographer for both Black Swan and Vox Lux. His promotion to the role of director is out of natural progression, as body language and movement tell just as much of the story here as they did in those two great movies. Regular Terrence Malick cinematographer Jörg Widmer swirls and tracks in ultra-wide shots, capturing both the beauty and harshness of the desert. Many scenes are dialogue-free, with Barrera and Mescal moving freely to Nicholas Britell’s elegant score.
Everything comes together to create a pretty picture, but it never left me with more than an appreciation for the craft. There’s an emotional pull that gets lost in the translation, making something that, while precisely pulled off, feel like just an exercise in looking the part. Musical theater and opera fans will surely find more to appreciate about it, and I’m sure it will become a cult classic among the interpretive dance crowd.