Friday, June 21, 2024

Movie Review: Dazzling Dance Scenes Mask Cliched Narrative in “Carmen”

For its first few minutes, at least, “Carmen” (opening today in South Florida) is spellbinding. The directorial debut of dancer/choreographer Benjamin Millepied opens with a few words of enigmatic Spanish poetry layered over an aerial vista of a sprawling desert, and then its most captivating set piece: a mother’s ritualistic tap dance on a wooden surface outside her home in the Chihuahuan Desert, on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The dance intensifies as intruders grow ever nearer, their vehicle leaving a dust trail in its wake. Her steps are like rolling thunder, good enough to ward off evil spirits, perhaps, but not the flesh-and-blood men with guns that finally arrive at her homestead, demanding the whereabouts of the dancer’s daughter. The woman’s steps build to such a frenzy that even these mercenaries are as momentarily transfixed as the rest of us. Eventually, though, she runs out of steps.

How unfortunate, then, that the crackling intensity of this overture is promptly squandered, with Millepied drowning his shopworn narrative in clichés and vacuous spectacle. “Carmen” follows the title character (Melissa Barrera)—the daughter sought by the killers in the movie’s introduction—on her odyssey to Los Angeles to meet up with an old family friend, who will provide both safe haven and maybe even a job for Carmen, an aspiring dancer herself.

On her surreptitious border crossing, Carmen is nearly killed by an overzealous and xenophobic Border Patrol agent—one of Millepied’s handful of gross caricatures—until she is rescued by the gallant Aidan (Paul Mescal), a penniless American Marine back from his second tour in Afghanistan, whose first day guarding the border is an eventful one indeed.

And so these young, attractive, tortured souls make their way “el norte” toward the City of Angels, living mostly off charity, while bring pursued by people who want to see them arrested or worse. And every now and then, they break out in musical fantasias of song and dance.

These are the movie’s sole raison d’être, its nominal nod to Bizet’s monumental opera of the same name, which Millepied has borrowed and abused like some shoddy rental car. These numbers, slickly choreographed and elegantly performed, reveal the limits of aesthetic beauty, dazzling us with eye candy while paradoxically halting the story’s momentum in its tracks.

Not that there’s much story worth following. The dialogue consists of fortune-cooking platitudes passing for wisdom, and the film is as bereft of nuance as it is narrative surprises. Millepied is not one for subtlety, so he leaves nothing to the imagination, a tendency that’s particularly evident in the film’s gauche depictions of Aidan’s PTSD-inspired hallucinations. Even as a riff on the time-honored tradition of magical realism in Mexican art, these psychic interludes just play, like so much of “Carmen,” as ham-fisted.

A smothering, overcompensating score by Nicholas Britell doesn’t allow us much opportunity to breathe, or to ponder the fact that, besides being fit as fiddles and aswarm with sexual pheromones, neither of Millepied’s lead characters offer any sort of psychological dimension or personality. By the time Aidan, in a desperate cash grab, joins an underground bare-knuckle fighting ring, there’s really no going back to the movie’s promising opening number. The sequence becomes an ugly hip-hop music video as Millepied effectively glamorizes blood sport, as if presenting “Fight Club” without the satire; this is toxic masculinity served straight.

Looming over this entire project is that pivotal moment, early on, when Aidan fires a bullet into the head of his own Border Patrol colleague to save Carmen’s life. Would he have committed this dramatic breach if he wasn’t the soon-to-be-white savior to a beautiful, single, age-appropriate damsel—if the would-be victim was, say, a 50-year-old man? I shudder to think of the answer.

“Carmen” opens today (Friday) at O Cinema in South Beach, and opens Saturday at Coral Gables Art Cinema.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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