By Liz Chan
28th June 2023

Dance brings magic. The body's movement tells a story between the dancer and the audience, a connection held briefly yet long-lasting if done well. 'Carmen' delivers gorgeous dance scenes starring Melissa Barrera ('In The Heights', 'Scream') as the titular character, who is so blessed with the classic triple threat of vocal-dance-acting ability as she whirls across the screen. Sadly, the film also undercuts itself significantly with a flat story that never truly gets up with the same passion or enigmatic nature its visuals possess.

The film opens with an arresting dance scene set in the Mexican desert ending in tragedy, setting Carmen on the run to attempt to cross the border to the United States. She holds to the promise of a safe haven on the other side - La Sombra nightclub, run by her mother's old best friend, Masilda (Rossy de Palma, 'Parallel Mothers', 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown').


As she attempts to make a dangerous and illegal crossing, her group is ambushed by a racist and very violent border patrol guard Mike (Benedict Hardie), as part of a group of a volunteer group that despicably touts guns and likens immigrants to wild animals to hunt. As a brutal shooting occurs, she is saved by an ex-Marine, Aidan (Paul Mescal, 'Aftersun'), who was a new recruit to the patrol group for weakly presented reasons. As the pair escape together and Carmen seeks out La Sombra, they form a romance.

Adapted from George Bizet's opera 'Carmen' (1875), based on Prosper Mérimée's 'Carmen' (1845) novella, first-time director Benjamin Millepied (choreographer of 'Black Swan') is the latest in a long line of people to take a stab at crafting an adaption of the novella-turned-opera. With the most impressive résumé including choreographer for an extensive list of ballet companies and ex-director at the Paris Opera Ballet, Millepied knows what the hell he's doing and he's that great... at the film's dance sequences. With a brilliant team-up composing of Millepied, cinematographer Jörg Widmer, and award-winning composer Nicholas Britell (I know you've got the 'Succession' theme stuck in your head), the three bounce off each other to create magnetic sonic and visual scapes. Shot in Australia, Barrera and Mescal underwent a dance boot camp led by Holly Doyle with Sydney Dance Company, who also feature in the film, in preparation for filming.

I enjoyed the dance sequences, and they were the clear highlight of the film, which makes it even more painful as they're suddenly jilted back into a story.

'Carmen' is admittedly an acquired taste, with Millepied choosing dance sequences as the primary mode of trying to tell a story. The camera whirls as Barrera delivers the best performance of her up-and-coming career as she keeps up with professional dancers from the Sydney Dance Company. Most of the film cuts to random (but decidedly vibey!) experimental and abstract sequences. Rossy de Palma is enigmatic as the owner of La Sombra as she beckons Carmen to stay and speaks in poetry. I enjoyed the dance sequences, and they were the clear highlight of the film, which makes it even more painful as they're suddenly jilted back into a story... a painful border romance film when the characters start to speak.

'Carmen' seems like two films, a solo dance film about Carmen escaping and finding herself; and then a shoed-in romance, and while Mescal and Barrera try very hard to sell, it never landed with me. As Barrera keeps up with the demands of dance sequences, Mescal (an incredible talent and future EGOT winner, I say) struggles to keep up or is confusingly not allowed to. Either way, both of them cement themselves as immensely talented young actors to watch and will only keep going up as their careers move.

As Millepied struggles to connect the lines between dance and a weak script, it made me wish very much that he chose to create an experimental dance film telling a completely different story or none at all - which does seem like what he wanted to do anyway.

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