Dance is a primordial force in “Carmen,” French choreographer-turned-director Benjamin Millepied’s debut. Vaguely inspired by Georges Bizet’s 19th century opera of the same name, the evocative, if narratively slight, doomed romance is charged with otherworldly intensity.
Dwarfed by an imposing desert (Australia standing in for Chihuahua, Mexico), a defiant flamenco dancer (Marina Tamayo) performs in front of two threatening armed men. Edited to accentuate the potent sound of her soles against the wooden stage, the opening scene feels as if the woman is physically summoning a storm, or perhaps a curse.
Mexican actress Melissa Barrera (“Scream”) soon steps into the screen in the title role of Carmen, the daughter of the valiant performer, who in the aftermath of her mother’s deadly confrontation with the cartel must run away to save herself. Voice-over on the wrath that men unleash on women further underscores the ordeal with mythical solemnity.
Across the border in Texas, a principled U.S. Marine named Aidan (Irish star Paul Mescal), whose PTSD from deployment manifests as haunting visions of sand, roams adrift. An Oscar nominee for the subtle drama “Aftersun” earlier this year, Mescal exudes a dejected energy while preserving the idealized masculinity, somewhere between rugged and tender, that has characterized his short but auspicious career — he even sings a brief tune here.
A life-or-death incident brings Carmen and Aidan together as fugitives and lovers heading to Los Angeles to meet Masilda, an irreverent lifelong dancer played by the incomparable Rossy de Palma, one of Pedro Almodóvar’s most reliable muses. Throughout their escapade to hide from the police, Millepied deploys dreamlike sequences where his choreography for Barrera and De Palma illustrates the interplay between brutality and delicacy that consumes his film.
Like individual poems written with bodies in motion, the dance set pieces vary in their impact, but on more than one occasion Millepied’s mystical approach to the imagery, hand-in-hand with the fluidity of cinematographer Jörg Widmer’s camera, dazzles the eye. It also helps that the palpable chemistry between Mescal and Barrera stays consistent.
The rising actress, whose filmography already includes multiple dance-centric titles such as the Mexican film “Sacúdete las penas” and “In the Heights,” soars in a part that shows a new kind of commanding gravitas. In a tearful embrace with De Palma late in the tale, Barrera exorcises Carmen’s pent-up sorrow, convincing us that she is capable of great dramatic nuance, even if the writing doesn’t explore her character’s psychology.
Paying homage to the original opera with a vigorous choir, the score by celebrated composer Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight”) rings as grand and eerie as the open landscapes in the couple’s journey. Britell also created the songs featured in collaboration with multiple artists including U.S-born Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas. That the actors can properly switch between Spanish and English depending on what the context calls for, taking advantage of Barrera being fully bilingual, already makes “Carmen” more believable than many international productions set in Latin America.
By design, it would seem, Millepied’s protagonists are more archetypes than fleshed out portraits of people. His interest, unsurprisingly given his background, is the sensual rather than political, which is why he would have been more successful had he thrust fully into the experimental instead of courting a tonal middle ground between the real and the uncanny.
Still, when his instincts for flamboyance lead, his “Carmen” casts a transporting spell.
In Spanish and English with English subtitles.
Rated: R, for language, some violence and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Starts April 21, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles