Review: A Soulful, Passionate Adaptation of Carmen Explores Border Politics, Doomed Love

What begins as duel storylines on either side of the U.S.-Mexican border come crashing together in a symphony of violence, passion, dance, and music to become a truly singular experience in Carmen, from first-time feature director and renowned choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied. Although the film begins with a powerful and tense dance number, the scene ends with the murder of the dancer, who happens to be the mother of Carmen (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights, Scream VI). Because the same killers are now after her, Carmen must flee her home in the Mexican desert and escape over the border into the United States illegally, where she and her fellow immigrants are confronted by a volunteer border guard member who kills two in her group.

By sheer luck, the guard has brought a friend with him, Aidan, a Marine with PTSD, played by recent Oscar-nominee Paul Mescal (Aftersun). Thankfully, Aidan knows that what his friend is doing is lawless and racist, and he confronts his friend and is forced to kill him to protect Carmen and the others. Carmen and Aidan end up fleeing the scene together, making their way to Los Angeles with law enforcement only a few steps behind them. And it’s at this point in the story that Carmen reveals itself to be something quite different than what it begins as. As the pair head to LA, anytime Carmen runs across fellow immigrants or kindred spirits trying to escape something, the film becomes something more like a musical, with energetic and powerful dancing meant to convey inner pain, conflict or love. The choreography is different that what you might find in a stage musical or music video; it’s more organic and fluid and lovely.

Their journey culminates at La Sombra nightclub, owned by Carmen’s mother’s closest friend Masilda (Rossy de Palma, the legendary actress who appeared in many early films by in ), who hides the now romantically entangled couple in her sanctuary of music and dance, where performances erupt unexpectedly, even as the police close in on these fugitives. Still in need of money and a safe place to live, Paul agrees to take part in a bare-knuckle boxing match with a huge cash prize, and (big shocker) the event includes choreography from the onlookers and a terrifying hip-hop performance by The D.O.C., who indicates the match will be to the death. As you might surmise, death is very much a reality in this world, and what chance does this couple have of surviving a world that seems hellbent on killing them?

To anyone who saw Barrera in In the Heights, it should come as no surprise that her singing and dancing are top notch. Even so, what we saw her do in that film is radically different from the more modern dance she’s doing here. And while Mescal doesn’t do much in the way of dancing in Carmen, when he is called upon to shimmy a bit, he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself. We even get a bit of him singing and playing acoustic guitar early in the movie. The cumulative impact of Carmen is something of a shock to the system, as the film constantly reinvents itself, going from social commentary and cultural experience to elegantly staged and lit musical, with an emphasis on creative choreography with a Mexican influence. If anything, I wish the work had more musical/dance numbers, but by using them sparingly, director Millepied makes us crave them, and when they finally arrive, we’re hooked all over again. I wish the film had dug deeper into some of its societal messages, but what’s here works beautifully.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.