Bringing dance to proper life in movies has long been a sticking point for fans of musical genres. But movement comes naturally for Benjamin Millepied, the globe-trotting choreographer and former New York City Ballet principal. Millepied’s debut feature film, Carmen, is a dreamlike musical drama that unleashes graceful bodies in motion against spectacular landscapes. (And it doesn’t hurt that one of those bodies belongs to Paul Mescal.)

Millepied’s Carmen follows a fearless woman (Melissa Barrera) who goes on the run with a U.S. Marine (Mescal) after a violent clash at the border. This isn’t a traditional interpretation of Georges Bizet’s classic opera but rather its own story, alternately contemplative and passionate. The film opens with a bravura scene of flamenco in the desert, stars the Almodóvar legend Rossy de Palma as a misteriosa nightclub owner, and punctuates the lovers’ flight with ethereally shot dances at night and twilight.

Natalie Portman and Millepied met on the set of Black Swan and married two years later.

“One of the things that was important to me was a love for the American landscape,” Millepied said via Zoom from Paris. He remembers watching Carmen for the first time on television as a child, but for his debut feature he went for pure cinema, tapping Terrence Malick’s ace operator, Jörg Widmer, as cinematographer. In the Heights starlet Barrera embodies Carmen with lithe freedom under the camera’s gaze, to an original score by Nicholas Britell (Succession).

Barrera, the Mexican actress who starred in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, as the titular Carmen.

Filmmaking clearly let Millepied soar in new ways. “I get to pick exactly where the eye of the viewer is, versus a proscenium,” he said. “I get to move the camera and light the scenes exactly where I want. It’s almost a way for me to understand myself even deeper than in a ballet.” He laughed as he hit his flow and lit a cigarette: “I’m being very French, smoking during the interview right now.”

Millepied had made short dance films for years and taken photographs extensively, but Black Swan looms large. He created Natalie Portman’s choreography for Darren Aronofsky’s hallucinogenic 2010 thriller. (Portman and Millepied married in 2012.) The movie came up when talking about the moments in Carmen when the camera seems to dance with the performers. “It is very close to what I experienced on Black Swan when we decided to do long handheld scenes. In Carmen, it’s all Steadicam,” Millepied said. He blocked out sequences himself using his phone.

Mescal, the Irish actor who starred in 2020’s Normal People, as Aidan.

Millepied benefited from having a peerless in-house adviser in Portman. It was her idea to cast Mescal and de Palma, and she watched the movie “a bunch of times” in the edit room. “She gave me fantastic notes,” Millepied said. “I’ve also seen her [at work] on set, and learned a lot from that.”

The Spanish actress and Almodóvar muse Rossy de Palma, as Masilda.

As for Mescal, the star goes all out in a duet with Barrera, capering with absolute abandon. “I think his dancing is awesome,” Millepied said. “The idea was not some Marine who suddenly started to be fluid like Fred Astaire. I wanted someone who was believable as a Marine.” Resolutely writing its own rule book, Millepied’s dance-cinema hybrid joins its modern characters in a state of heightened, even mystical emotion.

Carmen, directed by Benjamin Millepied, hits theaters on April 21

Nicolas Rapold is a New York–based writer and the former editor of Film Comment magazine