Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera sizzle in Benjamin Millepied's lavish and lyrical Carmen

A girl and a boy lovingly touch foreheads
[L-R]: Melissa Barrera as CARMEN, Paul Mescal as AIDAN 

French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who also choreographed Black Swan, directs a reimagined Carmen for contemporary audiences. This sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears features original music by the euphonious Nicolas Britell and choreography by professional flamenco dancer, Marina Tamayo (who also dances in the movie).

In truth, this Carmen is only loosely based on elements of the plot of Prosper Merimee's novella and the ensuing opera by Georges Bizet. Yet the main strands and tenets are all present and accounted for: freedom and belonging, passion and tragedy, music and dance, life and death. At the heart, Carmen is the tale of the poor and lost souls of this world who have nothing and so cling to the meager crumbs of heaven that come their way.

A man stands behind a vehicle
Paul Mescal as AIDAN
Carmen (Melissa Barrera), the daughter of a spirited dancer, goes on the run after her mother is brutally murdered – an event preceded by a defiant flamenco dance. With this opening scene, Millepied sets the stage at the onset that dance functions as an act of resistance against oppression. Two men come looking for Carmen and face her mother, Zilah (Marina Tamayo), whose searing eyes and dance steps dare these men to do their worst. Carmen follows her mother's directions to flee to the City of Angels in search of Masilda (Rossy de Palma), Zilda's soul sister.

Veteran soldier Aidan (Paul Mescal) suffers bad PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. A boxer who now chooses to sing soulful melodies in a junkyard rather than suffer the company of fools, he takes on work as a border patrolman to get his sister off his back. When Carmen crosses the border illegally, Aidan rescues her from a "shoot first, ask questions later" co-worker. The two drifters flee the scene together and become linked by common desperation. Here are two wandering souls, who find no refuge for their wounds. Carmen has lost her mother, Aidan has lost his way.

A woman cups a younger women's face in her hands
[L-R] Rossy de Palma as MASILDA, Melissa Barrera as CARMEN
The two embark on a road trip through the dingy corners of desert Americana, where brushfires alight with no warning due to the heat and dry temperatures. Carmen and Aidan begin as reluctant bedfellows but eventually they become companions and lovers. Millepied draws a connection between Carmen's dancing and Aidan's fighting. These two forms of self-expression demand total body investment, although one is meant to seduce and the other to damage. Carmen dances with her own style, but her mother's choice of flamenco dancing also points to an origin rooted in defiance against colonization.

In George Bizet's famous opera, the character of Carmen is portrayed as a femme fatale who seduces and then spurns the otherwise upstanding Don Jose. Their relationship is compared to a standoff between a bull and bullfighter, where only one can survive. The analogy still rings true in Millepied's Carmen, only Carmen and Aidan are allies in the bull is the rest of the world trying to tear them apart.

A woman stands with her back against a wall
Melissa Barrera as CARMEN
Melissa Barrera hits all the right notes as Carmen. She's lovely to behold and carries that element of danger. She moves about the world as if every moment could be her last. Paul Mescal, whose eyes contain legions of heartbreak, takes on the role of her dutiful protector. If nothing else, he knows how to guard and serve. He treats Carmen as his next mission, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to get her where she needs to go.

The story offers more of a mood than a plot though. Viewers who love searing imagery will indulge in this experience gladly. Rooted more in dreams than reality, Carmen is color and passion and youth and fury. Comparisons could be drawn between Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Rust and Bone, and Bones and All. Rooted in one of the most frequently performed operas ever made, inspired by gritty American musicals like West Side Story, and enriched by the iconography of both Western cinema and Romani cultures, Carmen is a sensory affair to remember.  

Release info: In select theaters April 21, 2023 and more widely released on May 18, 2023

Final score: 4 out of 5