April 29, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Benjamin Millepied
Some language in Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico and in California, the dramatic film “Carmen” (very loosely based on the classic French opera “Carmen”) features a Latin and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After her mother is murdered, a young woman illegally immigrates from Mexico to California to find her mother’s best friend, and she gets involved with an American border patrol agent who’s a fugitive for murder.
Culture Audience: “Carmen” will appeal primarily to people who are curious to see what an unconventional re-imagining of the famous opera looks like as a movie told from the perspective of a Mexican immigrant.
It’s a little too pretentious at times, but this dance-oriented version of the classic French opera “Carmen” at least took some bold risks and tried to do something different from what might be expected. Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal give very watchable performances. The movie is not going to appeal to people who think it’s going to be a traditional musical or a formulaic “outlaws on the run” action flick.
“Carmen” (which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival) is the feature-film solo directorial debut of Benjamin Millepied, who has a background as a ballet dancer. He had a small acting role in 2010’s ballet drama “Black Swan” and married Natalie Portman, the Oscar-winning star of “Black Swan.” Millepied co-wrote the “Carmen” screenplay with Loïc Barrere and Alexander Dinelaris.
The passion for dance as a form of expression is shown throughout “Carmen.” However, people who want to see a version of “Carmen” where people sing while dancing will be disappointed. There is some singing in “Carmen,” but it’s mainly with Barrera doing a sultry performance on stage as the title character, not singing dialogue in a conventional musical format.
“Carmen” begins with a scene of in the Chihuahuan Desert, near the Mexico/U.S. border. A woman named Zilah Rosas (played by Marina Tamayo) is doing a flamenco tap dance by herself, on a flat wooden board outside of her modest home. Suddenly, a hat-wearing man (played by Nico Cortez) drives up in a car, points a gun at her, and asks, “Where is she?” Zilah says nothing and tap dances furiously in response. And then, the man shoots Zilah and drives off, just as the woman he is looking for runs near the house and hears the gunshot.
That woman is Carmen, who is Zilah’s daughter. Carmen sees her dead mother, mourns for her, and buries Zilah in the front yard of the home in a makeshift grave. In a voiceover from the dead, Zilah tells Carmen to go to the City of Angels (Los Angeles) to a nightclub called La Sombra Ponderosa, and find Masilda. Viewers later find out that Masilda and Zilah were best friends but haven’t not seen each other since Masilda moved to Los Angeles. Masilda has not seen Carmen since Carmen was a child.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Marines veteran named Aidan, who’s in his late 20s or early 30s (about the same age as Carmen), is attending a barbecue cookout in Texas with some working-class people he doesn’t know very well. He has recently been discharged from the military, after serving in combat duty in Afghanistan, and he is currently unemployed. Aidan’s concerned older sister Julieanne (played by Nicole da Silva) tells him he needs to get a job. “It’s been nine months,” Julieanne tells Aidan. “And there’s only one job in this town.”
That job is being hired as an independent contractor for the U.S. Border Patrol. Aidan reluctantly takes the job and is given a brief orientation by a supervisor named Phil (played by Justin Smith), who tells his new subordinates that their job is fairly simple: If they see people illegally crossing the border, apprehend the border crossers and call for officials to handle it from there. All of these border patrollers are white men who are armed with guns.
It doesn’t take long for Aidan to see how some of the men he’s working with are openly racist, because the act very eager to cause violence against the non-white, Spanish-speaking people they expect to catch at the border. One of the new hires asks if anyone in this group of border patrol agents knows how to speak Spanish. A racist named Mike (played by Benedict Hardie), who has been paired with Aidan as a border patrol partner, smirks as he says, “Why? Do you speak deer?” It’s Mike’s way of saying he wants to hunt these people down like animals.
It should come as no surprise that Carmen is one of the people who ends up getting caught illegally crossing the border at night. She is among a group of some other captured Mexicans who are strangers to her. A few of them are children whom Carmen tries to protect. Mike gets very aggressive and shoots some of the Mexicans who try to run away.
A horrified Aidan is nearby, and helps some of the Mexicans escape. An infuriated Mike points a gun at Aidan, who shoots Mike in the head. Mike is killed instantly. In the chaos, Carmen steals Aidan’s truck, which is parked nearby. Aidan runs after the truck and manages to get in the back.
Carmen steers the truck in a way to try to throw Aidan off the truck, but it doesn’t work, so she stops when she sees that Aidan isn’t going to hurt her. When the the truck runs out of gas on a deserted road, Carmen gets out and run away. However, Aidan has a spare can of gas in his truck.
Aidan re-fuels the truck and drives up to where Carmen (who can speak Spanish and English) is walking on the road and offers to give her a ride and help her. Knowing that they are both fugitives from the law, Carmen accepts Aidan’s offer. And so begins the outlaw journey of Aidan and Carmen, who convinces Aidan to go to Los Angeles with her.
“Carmen” doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, which might be frustrating to some viewers. And the dialogue is often very simplistic. However, the movie does have a way of maintaining viewers’ attention for people who are curious to see what will happen next.
As already revealed in the “Carmen” trailer, Carmen and Aidan make it to Los Angeles, where Carmen goes to see Masilda (played by Rossy de Palma), is the owner of La Sombra Ponderosa. Masilda, who is happy to see Carmen doesn’t know at first that Carmen is a fugitive, wants to mentor Carmen as a performer in the nightclub. Masilda is an unusual character who puts her passion for music and dance above everything else in her life. Elsa Pataky has a small role as Gabrielle, one of the nightclub’s employees.
The movie has scenes where, right in the middle of a suspenseful plot development, people suddenly start dancing, usually in open outdoor areas. The modern dance performances are well-choreographed and convey the obvious: These dance interludes represent the moments of freedom that Carmen wants to experience in her chaotic life. Nicholas Britell’s musical score is very absorbing and complement the tone of the film that is sometimes suspenseful, sometimes meandering.
“Carmen” gets a little stale in a sequence where Aidan gets involved in underground boxing to make some quick cash. However, these scenes are enlivened by rapper Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry portraying a boxing referee. Curry performs some original raps in the movie during these boxing scenes. It’s eventually revealed that Aidan has post-traumatic stress disorder and a complicated sibling relationship with Julieanne.
Carmen and Aidan inevitably become lovers (also revealed in the movie’s trailer), but the movie does a very good job of showing the growing attraction and affection between these two characters. Aidan and Carmen are both lost souls who have a hard time trusting others. However, through their shared experience of looking out for each other while going into hiding, they learn to trust each other, to a certain extent. Barrera and Mescal have some sizzling chemistry, but viewers should not expect the Carmen/Aidan relationship to be a fairytale romance.
“Carmen” is by no means an award-worthy movie. It has some moments where the pacing is very sluggish. The movie’s dialogue could have been a lot more engaging. And the ending won’t be satisfying enough for viewers who want movies with unambiguous conclusions. However, “Carmen” shows very early on that it’s an experimental project where many of the emotions are expressed in the dance numbers. Viewers will know within the first 20 minutes of watching the 116-minute “Carmen” if they want to stay engaged in the story, or if they will lose interest in watching the rest of the movie.
Sony Pictures Classics released “Carmen” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.