Carmen is a surprising, enchanting, and ultimately moving film with an unusual approach. It’s an immigration story told with intervals of interpretive dance. Combining a gritty plot with elegant performance art doesn’t necessarily sound logical on the surface. Director Benjamin Millepied finds the right tone to make it work, infusing the movie with an aura of mystery that ties its two halves together. I was spellbound from beginning to end.

Melissa Barrera (Scream VI) is Carmen, a young Mexican woman who flees for the border after her mother is murdered. Against the odds, she successfully crosses over into America, although the trek is harrowing. Paul Mescal (Aftersun) is Aidan, a Marine dealing with PTSD. He’s a volunteer border patrol guard whose partner hates Mexicans and is quite content to kill Carmen after they catch her. Aidan recognizes she’s scared and harmless, and he shoots his partner in the head to protect her. Having now technically committed murder, he and Carmen go on the run, both seeking to avoid law enforcement.

The pair forge their way to a nightclub run by her godmother, the enigmatic Masilda (Parallel Mothers’ Rossy de Palma). There, she begins performing for the patrons, while Aidan ventures into an underground fight club hoping to anonymously earn a little money. They fall in love in the process.

That’s the plot. Beautifully choreographed dance sequences crop up at regular intervals in a dazzling display of magical realism. Carmen performs a mini ballet outside a dilapidated carnival with a group of women she stumbles upon. A fantasy sequence finds Carmen and Aidan dancing in the desert, kicking up sand in a seductive duet. A few of these scenes contain original songs. Carmen does double-duty, singing a mournful tune in the nightclub. My favorite number comes at the fight club, where the emcee (hip-hopper The D.O.C.) raps while the other brawlers carry out aggressive, krumping-like moves.

Millepied ensures every dance accentuates the emotions occurring in the plot at that time. The way he glides between stark authenticity and a hypnotic, dreamlike vibe is stunning. Dances reflect what the characters are feeling inside as they navigate a situation that stands to have serious repercussions. Jörg Widmer’s lush cinematography during these sections contrasts nicely with the grimy look of the dramatic ones. That helps illuminate the harsh reality of their predicament, as well as the passion Carmen and Aidan feel from falling in love.

Mescal gives his character an appealing mixture of rugged soldier mentality and inner sensitivity. He conveys a lot, often through few words. Barrera, meanwhile, delivers a show-stopping turn. Singing, dancing, and emoting throughout, she earns our empathy and guarantees Carmen’s plight is affecting. Barrera proves herself with this film to be the total package.

I did not expect to love Carmen as much as I do. It’s a bold artistic expression that pays off eloquently. Fairly or not, interpretive dance is viewed by some people as being stuffy or pretentious. This movie shatters that notion, making it accessible by utilizing it within a timely story that grips you from the first shot and doesn’t let go.

out of four

Carmen is rated R for language, some violence, and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.