Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen has endured not only because of its legendary music, but also because of its equally unforgettable passions—a mixture of jealousy, desperation and rage brought about by inextinguishable desire. Consequently, it’s been the subject of numerous cinematic adaptations that have sought to tap its hot-blooded vein. Those run the gamut from Raoul Walsh’s 1927 The Loves of Carmen and Charles Vidor’s 1948 remake with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, to Otto Preminger’s all-Black Carmen Jones from 1954, with Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge (the first Black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar), Jean-Luc Godard’s 1983 First Name: Carmen, and Robert Townsend’s 2001 Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyoncé. The names and contexts may change, but the lust, ache, and anger of Bizet’s classic remains.
That’s also true with regards to Carmen (in theaters April 21), choreographer-turned-director Benjamin Millepied’s feature debut, which recasts Bizet’s original—or, rather, the Prosper Mérimée novella upon which it was based—as a wildly expressive drama. This take on the story is led by Paul Mescal, Hollywood’s next big thing in the wake of his breakout in last year’s Aftersun, who’s paired with Scream VI’s Melissa Barrera in a showstopping, star-making performance. But Millepied’s film is only tangentially related to its predecessor, instead proffering a dreamy and sultry tale that’s more indebted to lovers-on-the-run sagas than Bizet. Nonetheless, capturing the pulse-pounding emotional whirlwind of its source material (and its characters), it’s a florid reimagining that’s at once bold, beautiful, and, at its peak, brilliant.
In the Mexican desert, doom’s arrival is heralded by Zilah (Marina Tamayo), whose furiously rhythmic zapateado dance routine escalates as two gunmen show up in search of the defiant woman’s daughter, Carmen (Barrera). Denied their prize, they execute Zilah, thereby compelling Carmen to abandon her home in a blaze of cleansing flames—one of the film’s chief motifs—and sneak across the border into the United States. There, her path crosses with Aidan (Mescal), a marine with two tours of duty in Afghanistan under his belt. When we’re introduced to Aidan at a preceding barbeque, he’s rejecting the advances of a married woman, throwing jabs at a punching bag, and greeting a fellow vet, whose obvious wounds (he’s lost both his legs and appears a psychological shell of himself) appear to match Aidan’s obscured ones.
Snapshots of faces we’ll meet in the future, and of Carmen and Aidan running down a road and vanishing into the darkness, are some of Millepied’s big early evocative gestures. Yet his stewardship is as subtle as it is supple, highlighted by a cut linking shots of Carmen letting sand flow through her fingers and Aidan strumming an acoustic guitar while singing, “Don’t slip away.” Sand is another of the film’s recurring symbols, representing the ephemerality of the romance to come; it’s in the desert that Aidan and Carmen’s fates intertwine, when he signs up with some racist border-patrol agents to earn some cash—at his sister Julieann’s (Nicole da Silva) urging—and, upon encountering a group that includes Carmen, kills his mate Mike (Benedict Hardie), in order to protect her from harm.
Thus, a furtive flight through windswept days and glittering nights is born, with Aidan and Carmen determined to avoid capture and, once they develop trust and affection, separation. Their bond is forged through incidents as operatically stylized as the choral singing that cascades across the soundtrack, swelling and subsiding in tune with the protagonists’ hearts, beginning with a nocturnal stop at a carnival. Aidan watches Carmen dance among a group of women, who are illuminated by the rides’ twinkling lights and the fiery pinwheels spinning around them. Eventually, the pair makes it to a Los Angeles dance hall named La Sombra Pederosa and run by Masilda (the inimitable Rossy de Palma, a frequent Pedro Almodóvar collaborator), a beloved friend of Carmen’s mother, who grants them temporary protection from the hostile forces outside (embodied by a pursuing cop). It’s also a sanctuary where Aidan and Carmen’s love can fully blossom.
Working from a script co-written with Alexander Dinelaris and Loïc Barrere, Millepied paints in expressionistic colors and with brash, grand brushstrokes. He forges connections via suggestive edits (courtesy of Dany Cooper) and repeated hallucinations as well as through explosive dance numbers that convey the urgent guilt, grief, and longing that are propelling star-crossed Carmen and Aidan toward each other. Carmen pulsates with full-bodied fervor, as cinematographer Jörg Widmer’s camera intensely attunes itself to the actors’ movements, swinging, swaying, racing, and gliding in time with their bodies and the invisible electricity flowing between them. In its late centerpieces, one set inside the club and the other in an arid clearing, Millepied creates such harmonious form-content synergy that his film becomes a master class in how to choreograph, stage, and execute—and, by definition, tell big-screen stories through—dance.
If Millepied’s stewardship is responsible for Carmen’s intoxicating energy, so too is the rapturous work of Barrera and Mescal, whose sizzling chemistry adds fuel to the film’s fire. His Aidan a scarred and withdrawn loner enchanted by Barrera’s title character, Mescal broods with a stoicism that makes his bursts of action all the more bracing. Barrera, on the other hand, is a sensual, turbulent force of nature, as distressed as she is determined; the actress’ turn boasts a mega-watt magnetism that not only helps sell Aidan’s infatuation with Carmen, but also comes to embody the story’s larger-than-life emotions. Whether on the dance floor, behind the microphone, or fleeing through the gloom with her paramour by her side, Barrera proves a vivid, transfixing presence that elevates the material to its loftiest heights.
Tragic by design, Carmen alternately slides and sprints toward its destination, along the way employing piercing close-ups, juxtapositions, and slow-motion to generate both heartfelt empathy and ardent intimacy. There are cinematic gestures in the closing 15 minutes of Millepied’s debut that should make most fellow filmmakers green with envy, including a song-and-dance performance by Barrera that ought to be taught in schools. The finale is even better, speaking—or, rather, singing—volumes about love, need, escape, togetherness, and the pain of saying goodbye in leaps, grasps, and caresses. Like Barrera’s heroine, Carmen triumphs by simultaneously reaching for the heavens and grabbing hold—and never letting go—of what matters here on Earth.