With another foray of a known artist embarking on film directing, French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied brings his passions to the big screen in a singularly artful and highly stylized film about an undocumented Mexican immigrant trying to cross the border who is rescued by a war veteran, and together they take a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles as they fall for each other. On just about every level—as a drama, a thriller, a romance about two emotionally wounded people coming together, a musical—the film is widely uneven with its bizarre tonal shifts, but the film mostly succeeds due to its visual elegance, absorbing drama, and swift pacing. The film’s sub-Nicholas Refn approach echoes some aspects of Refn’s Drive (2011) in terms of mood and atmosphere, which also holds a lot of dead silence that builds up to some inevitable menace. I found myself going back and watching it twice to make sure what I was watching was either jarring genre mixing or a highly stylized work of art. While not every tonal shift in the film works, the film is undeniably haunting and offers some very impressive sequences and uncanny artistry.
It’s difficult to fathom just what genre Millepied is trying to execute here. Mostly, he seems determined to make a road movie with a more modern approach to the tropes of Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands, and on another level, he aims to make a surreal and dreamlike musical that showcases his passions for tango dance and for the sensual. A great deal of the running time in the film is mostly internalized dance sequences, which are exquisitely staged by Milliped and gorgeously shot by Jörg Widmer. Furthermore, leads Melissa Barrera (fresh off her leads in the latest Scream films and In the Heights) and Paul Mescal (fresh off his Oscar nomination for Aftersun) make their characters deeply compelling, and you feel the treacherous dangers they are in as they run from law enforcement after self-defense is mistaken for murder.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
The film opens in an isolated desert in Mexico, where drug cartels are looking for Carmen Barrera. We are introduced to Carmen’s mother, Zilah, who begins to do a flamenco dance on a wooden board in protest. Of course, her courage comes to an end as Carmen watches in the distance with devastation and horror. They end up burning her house to the ground, and she ends up escaping out of sight and hitching a ride with a border smuggler willing to cross her and other fellow Mexican citizens desperately needing to cross the Texas border.
Simultaneously, in southwest Texas, Aiden (Mescal) is living casually after recently returning home from the military. Aiden is living comfortably, cooking burgers, playing his guitar, and drinking soda over beer. His friend’s wife often flirts with him, which he doesn’t partake in. His older sister (Nicole De Silva) lectures him to find a job and make some money. Mike suffers from PTSD and really wants to make up for lost time in the war with leisure time. But he needs money, so he ends up getting a job offer to make some money from an armed “Patriots” volunteer group that works with Border Patrol to guard the border.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
Carmen and a group of exhausted and hungry immigrants attempt to sneak across the border fence. They get across, only to be met with Mike and his band of makeshift border agents. Carmen ends up running off, only to find herself with a gun to her head as Mike attempts to assault her. From a distance, Aiden observes Carmen is in danger from Mike, and he ends up protecting her as he shoots his best friend in the head.
Together, they find themselves running off together and getting into a truck that they will soon have to abandon. They end up trekking across the neighboring border states to get to Los Angeles, where Carmen’s godmother, Masilda (played by Pedro Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma), runs a nightclub. Carmen ends up mourning for love and ends up getting a dance gig at the club with her talents, as Aiden tries to think of his next step in making money as he’s now a wanted fugitive. Through great onscreen chemistry, both Mescal and Barrea are quite dynamic together. They both end up falling in love as turmoil awaits them.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
It’s really a simple story; the first half of the film sets the story up, and it subtly transitions itself into music. At first it feels abrupt, but on repeat viewing, it’s actually quite subtle as each number starts off feeling more realistic and eventually fades itself into more hyperrealism. It’s rather unique how Millepied pulls it off. The hypnotic dance sequences reflect internal anxieties, adversities, and other fantasies. The most ravishing sequence includes a desert sequence of Carmen and Aiden dancing at sunset as they kick up sand in their duet. The most memorable sequence involves Aiden going to a fight club to earn money for a fight in the third act, as the emcee (The D.O.C.) raps as he sets off the laissez-faire “rules” of a bare-knuckle fight.
Mescal proves once again that he is quite a superb actor. His character, Aiden, holds a lot of nuances. He is observant and mysterious, and in many ways, he channels Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive. He’s both stoic and sensitive and holds a strong sense of independence, and his love comes through for our titular title character. Barrera does an exceptional job with her skilled performance that consists of singing and dancing while holding deep emotional resonance with each of her exchanges with Mescel and de Palma.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
Benjamin Millepie is an expert in dance chorography; he met his wife Natalie Portman during the rehearsals on Black Swan, after all. One could suggest his directorial debut is a “pet project,” and that’s fine because it’s executed with perspective and deft passion. The film completely absorbs you into a very involving story with some hallucinatory dance numbers. How Millepied transitions his story may at first feel like uneven tonal shifts, but there is a trust Milliped has for his story, cast, and collaborators that remains serviceable to the story rather than overwhelming the story. Looking at the response thus far, including my initial response until I revisited, I would say Carmen could be an easy movie to misunderstand due to defying conventions and viewer expectations. Viewers going in blind like I did will be so captivated by the first hour or so that what feels like another road movie romance becomes something entirely different. With that, Carmen becomes more of a passionate ode to love, liberation, and art itself. It’s a formally daring film that showcases how the visceral moments of adversity on display in the film can end up feeling like a ballet on its own.
Carmen is now playing in limited theaters
I tend to go for subdued musicals. I’ll probably give this a watch at some point.
Well-written essay! At some point in the coming months, I hope to give this intriguing film a shot.
This sounds messy but interesting. One I’d definitely be interested in seeing. I was wonder if it had any links to the opera which has been turned into films before. My favourite being mam, pride and vengence.
Very timely! Thanks for the review
Millipieds are not as creepy as millipedes. You wouldn’t get me into the theater if this were made by millipedes. Or about millipedes. Now centipedes, different story. Well, you have the same story but starring a centipede. Maybe have a centipede named Carmen…Carmen the Centipede. That’s much better. The antagonist of the story would have to be named Peter Millipede. Or to throw off the audience, Peter Millipedo…the insect wearing a Speedo. His face looks like Greedo, but his skills are neato. I heard he voted for Beto. That would have made it easier for Carmen to cross the border had Beto won. Damn, this film is next level.