Carmen is a tale as old as gender politics: man falls for woman, woman prefers other man, first man gets jealous, kills woman.
She first appeared in an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée but became an icon thanks to Georges Bizet’s dada-da-DA opera, which scandalised audiences when it premiered in Paris in 1875.
Since then, the story has been reimagined scores of times, shifting to reflect the anxieties of the age. Carmen started as a gypsy working in a Seville cigarette factory, before moving to making parachutes in the World War II-set Carmen Jones with its groundbreaking all-black cast. Rita Hayworth played her as a peasant in The Loves of Carmen; a 19-year-old Beyoncé made her film debut in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, where this time she’s a struggling actress who becomes a victim of US gun violence.
Increasingly, thankfully, the story is not about the downfall of Don José but the tragedy of the misunderstood and misrepresented Carmen.
A new take starring Melissa Barrera completely deconstructs then rebuilds the narrative. Carmen is a Mexican migrant, forced to flee her home after her mother’s murder. Directed by Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the ballet in Black Swan (and was then married its lead Natalie Portman), the story is told largely through mesmerising, heart-pounding dance sequences.
This Carmen is different, but what she symbolises is the same.
“In this day and age, I think Carmen represents strength and rebellion,” Barrera tells The Big Issue. “Carmen is a woman that was ahead of her time, who had agency and was doing whatever she wanted. To me she also represents resilience and confidence. And yes, sensuality. She gets punished for it. Because, of course!
“Despite everything that she’s carrying with her, all the guilt and the sorrow, she also has this childlike wonder and freedom that a lot of people lose. When we’re children we’re super powerful. Everything we can think of, we believe we’re capable of doing. We have no limits. As we grow, the world tells us: no you can’t do that. Carmen never had that. She still floats through the world. I think that’s what makes her so magnetic.”
Barrera has become a familiar face on screen over the last couple of years. She’s heroically battled Ghostface in the recently revitalised Scream franchise and starred as Vanessa in the vibrant film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’sIn the Heights.
Carmen needs a partner to provide the sizzling passion. Here it’s ably brought by current Hollywood darling Paul Mescal, playing a US veteran suffering from PTSD. Neither Barrera nor Mescal are trained dancers, but this helped create the chemistry between them.
Learning to dance with a stranger is the best way to get to know somebody, Barrera explains. “It’s beautiful for many reasons. First of all, because neither of us are dancers, we both came in very nervous. We were like, alright, we’re in this together so we’ve got to trust each other. We’re both going to fail and feel stupid, which is a very vulnerable state to be in when you’re in front of another person.
“But you get to know their body language so, so deeply. You get to know when they feel confident, how they carry themselves when they’re feeling self-conscious. You get to feel their weight and they feel yours. And you make a lot of eye contact, and making eye contact with a person is one of my favourite things.
“We’re both very competitive and very similar in our need to get everything right. We were going to drill until we could forget about the steps and concentrate on the story that we’re telling.”
The effect of the story of a migrant crossing the US-Mexican border being told through dance is revelatory. In an age where we see constant news reports about people forced to leave their homes in search of safety, the numbers, tragedy after tragedy, become mind-numbing. Telling the story through dance and music hits directly at the heart.
“We are taught from a young age to rationalise everything and to make smart choices. So we’re constantly told the world needs you to use your brain more than anything,” Barrera says. “This is a movie that is all about feeling and exploring that feeling.
“I hope that it moves people. That’s why I got into acting. I would go and watch musicals and plays when I was younger and I would feel an unexplainable stirring inside my body and it just blew my mind. That’s the magic of movies and theatre and TV where it takes you on a ride and before you know it, it’s making you feel things that you don’t know how to explain.”
Perhaps the greatest joy of this Carmen is that it gives a character cast for decades as a harlot or a pariah or a victim the autonomy to change her destiny.
“I feel like that’s a very beautiful thing that Benjamin wanted to do with his reimagining,” Barrera says. “He wanted to give her a different ending. He wanted to give her the ending that she deserves.
“She fought and she survived and so there is hope for her in the future. She lives on.”
Carmen is available on Blu-ray, DVD and download from 24 July
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