'Carmen' Movie Review: A Must Watch on the Big Screen

Movie Review: Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal in Carmen

Melissa Barrera and recent Academy Awards actor nominee Paul Mescal (Normal People, AFTERSUN) star in a modern and mesmerizing iteration of the classic novella, CARMEN directed by Benjamin Millepied. The movie is a sensual love letter to dancing.

After Carmen’s (Barrera) mother is murdered in Mexico, she makes the dangerous journey to Los Angeles to connect with someone from her mother’s past. While crossing the desert, a former Marine (Mescal) with PTSD saves her from a border militia member. The two head North together as fugitives.

VIDEO: Melissa Barrera and CARMEN director Benjamin Millepied talk behind the scenes

While most indie films don’t require a big-screen viewing, CARMEN is a work of art that should be watched on the big screen. With beautiful and mesmerizing imagery and smoldering chemistry between the leads, Millepied delivers a cinematic painting.

A world-renowned choreographer best known for his work in 2010’s BLACK SWAN starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, the first-time feature film director makes a stunning debut with CARMEN. The career move seems like a natural step for the French-born filmmaker who uses dance to express emotion and heighten the tension in much the same way he did in the BLACK SWAN ballet numbers.

The film starts in a Mexican desert with a car approaching a single adobe dwelling. The scene cuts back and forth between the speeding car and a woman dancing flamenco on a wooden plank. Her stomping heightens the tension as the car approaches. When the man exits his car and demands to know Carmen’s whereabouts, her stomping increases as if challenging the bull to a fight. The man is hypnotized for a while but he snaps out of it. That scene is one of the most creative moments in cinematic history.

Carmen movie review

Another scene towards the end of CARMEN is also another stroke of artistry. Again Millepied uses stomping to evoke a crisis during a fight club sequence. Rather than present the brutal combat as usual, he tells the story through rapping and footwork as the men brutalize each other. He turns the violence into a work of art.

Barrera and Mescal’s characters share very little dialogue, and their chemistry is immediate. Coming off SCREAM 6, the role offers Barrera more of a challenge with darker themes and acting through the expression of dance. Although she danced and sang in IN THE HEIGHTS, it was more spectacle than expression.

For Mescal, the role is the same pensive type as in AFTERSUN which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, although his character is much more fleshed out in CARMEN. Mescal is an actor to look out for as he transitions to mainstream Hollywood. Next up, the Irish actor will star in Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR sequel playing the grown-up Lucius, and he has six other projects in the works.

Millepied is certainly in his element. CARMEN is a love letter to dancing and the freedom it offers. CARMEN is not for everyone if you prefer straight storytelling. While the narrative is more linear than most expressionistic films, it relies heavily on symbolism.

While Millepied’s re-imagining of CARMEN is transplanted to the United States border, the influence of the original Spanish setting is littered throughout. Flamenco is part of the dance numbers, and Spanish-born actors Rossy De Palma (WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN) and Chris Hemsworth’s wife Elsa Pataky appear in the movie.

Cinematographer Jörg Widmer paints the barren desert in a beautiful light. The mostly outdoor setting is contrasted with the later part of the movie set in a darkly lit nightclub where they hide out.

CARMEN is now playing in select movie theaters.

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