Film Review: Carmen is a hypnotic romance driven forward by its raw emotion and sexuality

Though the title of Benjamin Millepied‘s feature directorial debut Carmen – the dancer-turned filmmaker having cut his teeth on short films and music videos – suggests a connection to Georges Bizet‘s French opera of the same name, his script – co-written with Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Loïc Barrere – only mildly references its narrative mentality and instead harnesses a focus on the US/Mexico border and an affair born from both love and desperation.

Opening with the rather stirring image of Zilah (Marina Tamayo) dancing defiantly to no music and the men that eventually kill her, her daughter – the titular Carmen (Melissa Barrera) – quickly takes off from the very drug lords that ended her mother’s life and arranges an illegal border crossing into New Mexico.  It’s here where she meets Aidan (Paul Mescal), a former Marine who is unwittingly bonded to Carmen when he kills Mike (Benedict Hardie), a deplorable racist who’s all too eager to hunt down Mexicans and thus targets Carmen.  Bound by the blood on their hands, Carmen and Aidan evade the law together, both aware of what will happen to them should they be caught.

Whilst Carmen is indeed working with a relatively straightforward narrative, Millepied’s background and evident strength as a dancer and choreographer is what injects the film with a certain energy that keeps the film from ever succumbing to monotony and predictability.  Carmen is a strange piece of cinema, without question (it may prove too odd for the masses), but it’s undeniably fascinating and hypnotic in the choices it makes.  Dance is utilised in a manner that enhances and drives the story forward, and whilst the sequences aren’t of the levelled spectacle traditional musicals adhere to, the raw emotion and sexuality imbued in each step is what maintains Carmen‘s fascination as a whole.

The story’s shift to Los Angeles is where a deal of that emotion and sexuality merge, when Aidan assists Carmen in finding a club owned by Masilda (regular Almodóvar collaborator Rossy de Palma, an absolute force of nature on screen and, arguably, this film’s brightest spot), a friend of her mother and something of an eventual mentor to Carmen herself.  Like her mother, Carmen is an expressive, skilled dancer, and it’s through her movements that she bares herself, with Aidan falling for her in the process; Barrera, if you needed a reminder that she’s more than just a new generational Scream queen, is a skilled dancer in her own right (In The Heights, anyone?) and she is breathtakingly good when she’s let loose here.

Aside from de Palma’s appearance, Barrera and Mescal carry Carmen at every turn, and whilst his dancing skills can’t compare, the chemistry they generate speaks beyond the film’s limited dialogue.  Given how experimental the film tends to be, one can’t help but wish Millepied threw caution to the wind and truly embraced the dance-centric nature of his story, doing away with the script and focusing on the expressiveness and fervour that entirely overwhelm the film’s rhythm.

Unlikely to be embraced by all, but difficult to not be entranced by its unconventional tempo, Carmen is a haunting and isolated piece of storytelling, bolstered by committed performances that refuse to place a foot wrong, even if the story doesn’t always flow as smoothly.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Carmen is screening in Australian theatres from July 13th, 2023

Carmen was originally reviewed as part of our 2023 Sydney Film Festival coverage.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.