Carmen (Sony Pictures Classics) is a musical drama with so many unique cinematic ingredients that it explodes on screen. The opening scene, a stand-off between Carmen’s mother, Zilah (Marina Tamayo) in full Flamenco dance and cartel gun wielding rogues, sets the tone for a riveting adventure story. Carmen has it all - superb acting, a dynamic original score, innovative choreography and a poetic storyline that encompasses fantasy and romance within a warped, political system.  The film opens this Friday, May 5th at the Angelika at Mosaic in Fairfax. Purchase tickets here!


Mexican born actress, Melissa Barrera, stars as Carmen, a name that means a strong and passionate person in Spanish. In Latin it also fittingly means “poem.” Barrera gained notoriety in last summer’s film, In The Heights based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical. She also got her start on Mexican telenovelas and was later introduced to American audiences on the Starz’s drama, Vida. Her performance in Carmen parallels her own persona as she confidently acts, sings and dances throughout the entire film. Ironically, Barrera doesn’t have a formal dance background, but choreographer/director Benjamin Millepied, helps fine tune the actress in ballet to meet the demands of the intricate dance sequences. Carmen is a fierce young woman, who needs to cross the Southern border in order make her way to Los Angeles and gain freedom from mysterious assailants. The only thing standing in her way besides the treacherous journey through the desert are U.S. border guards and unpaid militia members, who are naively told that if you see illegals call the border guards to round them up. Aiden (Paul Mescal), a former soldier shadows one of these militias on a patrol and crosses paths with Carmen. Their initial encounter unleashes a series of tragic events, and they embark together on a beautiful journey filled with danger. This is stunningly filmed through the cinematography of Jörg Widmer (Terence Malick’s A Hidden Life).

Carmen is Mescal’s follow-up film after his fantastic (and Academy Award nominated) performance in Aftersun. Aiden is suffering from PTSD after two tours in Afghanistan. He avoids commitment, doesn’t have a job and lives day by day in a desert trailer park with his sister. Early in the film, we get a glimpse of Aiden’s own fragile emotional state as he interacts with a disabled veteran whom he served with. Mescal continues to show in his characters a vulnerability and an innocence that has propelled him to stardom.

This film is a musical drama based on the 1875 opera of the same name. There have been cinematic and stage interpretations of the opera throughout the years, but this version distinctly stands out. The reason for such a unique interpretation is first time director, Benjamin Millepied. Millepied is a French dancer and choreographer, who is the founder of the innovative “L.A. Dance Project” and also the choreographer for Darren Aronofsky’s film, Black Swan. He also choreographed the “sand walk” in visionary Director, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune

Millepied’s debut direction in Carmen is the result of years of collaboration with the likes of Aronofsky, Villeneuve as well as his stage work. Even he admits in an article from Variety that filming Carmen is like going to film school and bringing together everything he loves - film, music and choreography. Consequently, this freedom leads to the most important collaboration of all - the mind-blowing, dramatic score for Carmen by composer Nicholas Britell, who partnered with Millepied to create the “L.A. Dance Project” in 2012. Britell, a three time Academy Award nominated composer is known for his music on the HBO series Succession where he blends classical and hip hop music to elevate the drama throughout the series. In Carmen, his music encompasses elements from the original opera, choral groups, musical experimentation and collaboration with the the rapper, The D.O.C. The resulting musical compositions compliment the movement and emotions in each scene. Britell’s use of choir in the score helps signify the direction of the story. According to the Variety article, Britell states, "I was driven by where and how that came together and what was happening,” Britell explains. “Towards the beginning of the film, where there is violence, the men’s choir provides a dark setting. In contrast, the women’s choir provides the heart of the score.”

The combination of Millepied’s vision and Britell’s music brings together a stunning debut for the first time director, who also shares a writing credit for Carmen. The first half of the film is mesmerizing as Carmen and Aidan make their way from Mexico to Los Angeles. Watching Aidan and Carmen’s relationship develop is the most interesting aspect of the film. The carnival-esque “Burning Man” dance scene during this journey is also pure magic. However, the scenes with Pablo (Richard Brancatisano), who helps Carmen and Aidan during their escape, provides intrigue but falls short of its potential.

The arrival at La Sombra Pederosa nightclub in Los Angeles to meet with Carmen’s godmother, club owner Matilda (Rossy de Palma), gives promise that the film will continue to rise to the next level as it enters into a cabaret dimension. Anyone unfamiliar with de Palma’s work will be intrigued by her looks and magnetic performance. De Palma is director Pedro Almodovar and fashion designer Jean Gaultier’s muse, and a true multi-disciplined artist, having risen up in a post Franco Spain. Her mantra has been to have complete expressive freedom in her endeavors. She delivers a dynamic performance in her role and her character offers sanctuary to Carmen and Aidan under the auspice that a police state is lurking in the shadows. It is under Matilda’s guidance that Carmen spreads her wings in dance, undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a tour de force. Millepied’s choreography and direction shine during this transformation with a dance scene between Carmen and two male performers in the club.

Ultimately Aidan and Carmen’s relationship comes full circle as Millepeid’s choreography and direction re-engages effortlessly with Britell’s music. The finale is a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Fight Club-esque performance that is accomplished with great skill and something not seen before on film.

Carmen in its entirety shows the potential that Millepied has as a director. It also gives us a glimpse of what we can expect from an upcoming crop of new filmmakers, who are presenting old stories and new material in a startling and refreshing way.

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