Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

dir Benjamin Millepied
prd Dimitri Rassam, Rosemary Blight
scr Alexander Dinelaris, Loïc Barrere, Benjamin Millepied
with Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, Rossy de Palma, Nicole da Silva, Benedict Hardie, Elsa Pataky, Tracy "The Doc" Curry, Corey London, Damien Thomlinson, Diego Espejal, Tara Morice, Marina Tamayo
release US 21.Apr.23,
UK 2.Jun.23
22/Australia 1h56

barrera mescal de palma

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barrera and mescal
Taking an ambitiously experimental filmmaking approach, dancer-turned-director Benjamin Millepied creates an eye-catching riff on the tale that inspired the classic Bizet opera. The film is an atmospheric dreamscape that's strikingly visual and accompanied by an eclectic mix of evocative new music. But these artful flourishes sit oddly with the obvious storytelling and thinly written characters, so the film loses both its rhythm and its topicality along the way.
After her mother (Tamayo) is murdered in their Mexican village, Carmen (Barrera) flees to the US border. On the American side, the depressed young veteran Aidan (Mescal) has been forced to work with a local militia hunting desperate migrants. On his first night, Aidan rescues Carmen from his trigger-happy colleague Mike (Hardie) and they hit the road, heading toward a California desert nightclub run by Carmen's family friend Masilda (de Palma), who encourages Carmen to find healing through dance. But officials are on their trail, and Aidan finds himself pushed into a grim corner.
Echoes ripple through the music, dance and imagery, offering thematic connections in artfully clever, if not always subtle, ways. So it's annoying that the characters remain opaque. Even with some terrific acting, the writing and direction don't allow them to be vulnerable or knowable, so it's difficult to root for them as they are pushed by outside forces. Instead, Millepied centres on lushly photographed settings that make dazzling use of light, colour and movement. Indeed, in the second half, music and dance take over before a pointed but unnecessarily dark dramatic subplot kicks rather clumsily into gear.

As the fiercely determined Carmen, Barrera has terrific presence. This is a survivor tho doesn't let anyone divert her from her path. She also generates prickly chemistry with Mescal, who delivers a powerfully involving performance as the haunted ex-Marine. His earthy, mesmerisingly honest approach beautifully grounds the film's more fantastical elements, although their romance feels more inevitable than lusty, emerging in dance rather than dialog or drama. And as always, de Palma steals her scenes, even when spouting the obvious aphorisms.

Gorgeous sequences are scattered through this film, from a fiery dance in the desert to several sophisticated numbers in Masilda's surprisingly enormous and sophisticated club. But instead of finding narrative interest or thematic resonance in pungent themes like migration and trauma, the film pushes obvious inspirational messages such as noting that everyone dances in their own way or that everything you are looking for is inside you.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 31.May.23

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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall