Sensual and simmering with tension, Black Swan and Dune choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s debut feature reimagines classic opera Carmen for the modern era, a musical drama set in the hotbed of the America–Mexico border.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
Major up-and-coming stars Paul Mescal (Oscar-nominee for Aftersun, NZIFF 2022) and Melissa Berrera (a highlight of Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights) play star-crossed lovers from different sides of the US-Mexico border in the debut feature of choreographer Benjamin Millepied.
Carmen (Berrera) is a steely young woman fleeing gang violence in the Mexican desert. Aidan (Mescal) is the moody and wayward ex-Marine who rescues her from the clutches of a violent American militia hunting illegal immigrants. On the run, the two fall into a steamy love affair as they try to make their way to Los Angeles. Millepied conjures fierce performances from his two stars, who showcase their musical and dancing talents amidst a sweltering, tense drama that daringly reimagines Bizet’s tragic opera of the same name. Nicholas Brittell, composer of Succession and Moonlight fame, punctures the film with his emphatic and, yes, operatic score.
Shot in the Australian outback, the film features stunning photography from cinematographer Jörg Widmer, recalling modern desert classics like No Country for Old Men and Birds of Passage (NZIFF 2018). Millepied’s talent with rhythm and movement is well suited for frequent sequences of song and dance, but he proves to be a talent in the art of capturing a story in striking, well-defined imagery as well, frequently luring the viewer into well-mounted, dreamlike moments of abstraction.
The film has the feel of a passionate first-timer blazing their own path away from genre conventions. It is a musical with only a few, memorable, songs; it is a dance movie which wields its choreography as stylistic interludes from the action of the drama; it is an adaptation that cares little for fealty to the original text, for the better. Though this Carmen ultimately bears little resemblance to the specifics of Bizet’s masterwork, it remains a smouldering, tragic tale of passion that is guaranteed to leave its mark on audiences. — Tom Augustine