In Benjamin Millepied’s Reimagining of ‘Carmen,’ Everyone Is a Dancer

He has adapted Georges Bizet’s storied opera into a movie, updating it to the present-day Chihuahuan Desert from 19th-century Spain.

Goalpost Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics
Carmen (Melissa Barrera) and Aidan (Paul Mescal) in 'Carmen.' Goalpost Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics

What does one do after reaching the pinnacle of the dance world? Pivot to filmmaking, of course. 

Benjamin Millepied ascended to the Paris Opera Ballet’s director of dance after serving as New York City Ballet’s principal and founding L.A. Dance Project. But as chronicled in Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai’s documentary “Reset,” even he was powerless to move the needle forward at that centuries-old French institution replete with ossified traditions.  

Now, for his next act, he has adapted Georges Bizet’s storied opera “Carmen” into a movie, updating it to the present-day Chihuahuan Desert from 19th-century Spain. 

The eponymous gypsy woman is now an undocumented immigrant played by Melissa Barrera; the soldier now a border patroller named Aiden and played by Paul Mescal, a recent Oscar nominee in the Best Actor category for “Aftersun.” 

Carmen carries out the last wishes of her mother, Zilah (Marina Tamayo), by crossing the Mexican border to search for her mom’s friend, Masilda (Rossy de Palma). Aiden kills his patrolling partner amid an ambush of Carmen and her fellow travelers, prompting him to join her on the lam.  

What Mr. Millepied has conceived is a provocative study in contrasts: The dramaturgy vs. interpretive dance of the same narrative. The literal vs. the figurative. Music video aesthetics vs. cinema. Country music vs. classical. Flamenco vs. ballet. Christmas lights draped over an unframed poster print of a Virgin Mary portrait. Although the premise sounds like an austere multidisciplinary art installation, the film is quite accessible. 

Mr. Millepied extends Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” idea to its logical conclusion — that everyone is a dancer — and mounts numbers on location, sometimes against spectacular natural backdrops. He chooses professional actors over trained dancers so the imprecision of their movements will imbue a sense of realism. 

Mr. Millepied also takes the concept of “action choreography” quite literally. When Aiden enters an underground fight to raise money for the getaway, spectators and gamblers ringside suddenly transform into the chorus line, staggering in synchronicity during the number. 

Cinema mavens will note another juxtaposition in the film’s music, mixed by Yves-Marie Omnes, with the interplay between sounds heard and made by the characters in the film, and the score, heard only by the audience. 

The first dance, a flamenco performed by Ms. Tamayo, is unaccompanied by music and punctuated entirely by her hand claps and foot stomps. Yet the score by Nicholas Britell swoops in during a later scene when characters break into songs impromptu. 

Drawing inspiration from Ansel Adams, Mr. Millepied definitely has an eye for mise en scène, but more importantly an authentic visual sense. Although shot in Australia due to budgetary and Covid-related complications, the film credibly recreates Texicana in the outback. 

Despite his own classical background, Mr. Millepied doesn’t turn his nose up at pop culture. A dance taking place on dampened fairgrounds, and lit by a ring of fire and reflections of amusement park rides in the puddles, has that unmistakable glitzy music video look. 

He embeds the camera in the middle of dances, something quite common in K-pop, a musical genre for which choreography has become essential. Mr. Millepied has blocked all the choreography with an iPhone, so cinematographer Jörg Widmer mimics a camera phone’s agility with his own camera movements. 

Although not a dancer by profession, Ms. Barrera, best known for “Scream VI” and the “In the Heights” film adaptation, is surprisingly adept at playing one. She exudes confidence and grace, plus the camera adores her. The pros in the chorus line never upstage her. 

Her acting is a revelation, especially during a complex scene in which Carmen’s grief over Zilah’s death shifts to catharsis as Masilda consoles her. Mr. Mescal has only one pivotal dance in the strictest sense, but he is engaging with his acting and physicality. 

Even for those uninitiated in the art of dance, the acting in “Carmen” will most certainly move you. 

The New York Sun

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