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Modern-Day Gypsy

Sony Pictures Classics

Carmen (2022)

Robert De Niro once answered a question about his career by saying “The talent is the choices.” Whether or not Paul Mescal knows that quote, it’s advice he has taken to heart. After the television show “Normal People” captured everyone’s imaginations in early lockdown, both he and his costar Daisy Edgar-Jones were given the freedom to choose what they wanted to do next, an incredible position for any actor in their early 20s to be in. While Ms. Edgar-Jones has gone for unusual rom-coms and more standard courtroom dramas, Mr. Mescal has proved himself willing to experiment, and push beyond the comfort zone a lot of actors on the rise have.

“Carmen” would be an unusual movie no matter who was starring in it. It’s a modernization of the opera by Georges Bizet, based on an adaptation by Frank Wildhorn, told primarily through dance as well as some songs, and directed by first-timer Benjamin Millepied (who probably hates that everyone points out he met his wife, Natalie Portman, when he choreographed “Black Swan”). The tragic love story between an American war veteran with PTSD and the Mexican immigrant he saves is no less operatic for not containing any opera. It is an enthralling love story which would not work without Mr. Mescal’s quiet decency. It cannot be recommended highly enough.

It's weird, of course. In real life, there are no circumstances in which Aidan (Mr. Mescal) and Carmen (Melissa Barrera) would pause for a dance number with the members of an itinerant circus in an empty parking lot. And even if they did, the parking lot at night wouldn’t be lit with structures on fire carefully placed to captures the dancers’ reflections in puddles, as the women encircle Carmen as she expresses her glee at her sudden freedom and her confusion about the new man in her life. But who cares about reality. It’s emotionally authentic and therefore works spectacularly. This is a story about feelings that are so overwhelming words are not enough; they can only be expressed through the body. Mr. Mescal, while clearly not as expert as Ms. Barrera, doesn’t embarrass himself, not even when he sings a quiet lament to himself on a guitar. But it’s Ms. Barrera’s dancing which is at the core of the film; and it’s Ms. Barrera who is the centre of the plot – her mother was murdered protecting her from some bad men and her risky illegal journey over the American border is necessary to stay alive. The desert incident in which Aidan saves her life involves the equally necessary deaths of some other bad people; and Aidan’s choice to stay with Carmen instead of facing the law means he is also being hunted. But Carmen’s mother had a best friend named Masilda (Rossy de Palma, extraordinary), who owns a salsa club in Los Angeles where Gabrielle (Elsa Pataky, reminding everyone she’s better than the “Fast & Furious” franchise lets her be) runs the bar. They welcome Carmen with open arms, and after one look at him can’t be stopped from welcoming Aidan as well. The conversation where they discuss the size of Aidan’s pee-pee in front of him without knowing he also speaks Spanish is a delight.

Ms. de Palma’s performance is unusually stylized for current cinema; she is the movie’s conscience and its most direct expression of emotion. It’s the kind of heightened dramatic affect seen most often in mid-century Hollywood movies from actresses in the so-called “ethnic” parts, who must embody the swirling emotions of the plot to enable the lead actor to remain stoically heroic. But Masilda is also a performer in every atom of her being, who craves big feelings and the chance to express them on stage or in song. She knew Carmen as a child and is prepared without question to defend her to the death, and understands instantly she owes Aidan this chance to express this love. Ms. de Palma, who has worked extensively with Pedro Almodovar, is the movie’s nerve center, pushing its inexpressible feelings to the dance floor. But it’s the relationship between Aidan and Carmen, which neither of them were prepared for, which is the beating heart.

“Carmen” was the best movie this critic saw at the Toronto International Film Festival. In it Ms. Barrera is a marvel, all determined desperation and bewildered longing, but it’s Mr. Mescal, through his still physicality and his ability to regard people, who is the revelation. (Honestly, when was the last time an actor evoked so much emotion just by looking at somebody? Daniel Day-Lewis, maybe?) And like Mr De Niro and Mr Day-Lewis, Mr Mescal is going to be able to write his own ticket for as long as he wants. We should all be so lucky, and so loved.


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