Benjamin Millepied Uses Movement to Reinvent ‘Carmen’ on Camera

After the movie showed at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, critics were divided. For IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote: “‘Carmen’ is stretched across a few too many borders to ever feel like it’s standing on solid ground. And yet, it’s undeniably exhilarating.” Other reviewers were less sure. “It’s an unsteady composition, a frenzied combination of willowy movement pieces, an ecstatic score and a too-loose narrative,” Lovia Gyarkye wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.

Over coffee, Millepied discussed the critical reaction to the film, the allure of “Carmen” and working with actors. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you want to direct a film?

I always had a personal hobby of taking photos, a need to really look at what I was interested in visually. And I have always loved film; I remember watching “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and Satyajit Ray’s “The Music Room,” when I was around 9 years old. When I was at the School of American Ballet in my teens, I went to movies all the time. I always had this dream at the back of my head about directing a film.

What was the pull of “Carmen”?

Early on, when I was starting to think about the story, I had dinner with [the director] Peter Sellars and mentioned I wanted to make a “Carmen” film. He got kind of passionate, and said, “You have to reinvent it, it’s a terrible story.” I thought he was right. It’s a 19th-century tale, where the woman gets punished for her sins by getting murdered, and can’t love or be loved. I was interested in her essence — her freedom, her fire.

I wanted to tell this woman’s story. It definitely had something to do with my relationship with my mother, to a connection to family history and emotions.

Did you think of your version as a musical?

I was interested in how to tell a modern story, and use music and dance in a way that doesn’t pause the narrative, isn’t decorative but integral. In the end, the movie tells a lot of the story through movement.

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