Benjamin Millepied first started dancing at the age of 8 when his mother, a former ballet dancer, became his first teacher. Around that same time, she took Millepied to see Sydney Pollack's psychological drama, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, in France. "I spent most of the film under the seat," he recalls. "But these things have a huge emotional impact when you're young — the lighting, the camera, the environment, the drama, it's something that stays with you forever."
Millepied began studying classical ballet by age 11 and at 15, moved to the U.S. to study under the tutelage of West Side Story's Jerome Robbins. Though his love of cinema took a backseat as he pursued a career as a dancer and choreographer, a revival screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in his late teens reignited his passion to someday direct.
"I think seeing that movie was probably a turning point," Millepied says. "I went with Jerome Robbins and my friend, Aidan, to see that movie, and I think it was partly because of Bernard Herrmann's haunting score and the tension and the mystery of this man following this woman, it was a moment where I started to really think about that dream even more so."
In 2010, Millepied choreographed and performed as a dancer in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, which earned five Oscar nominations, and for which his wife, Natalie Portman, won Best Actress. He later choreographed a pop star performance for Portman's Vox Lux, as well as the sandwalk "dance" for 2021's Oscar-winning Dune. Over the years, he has made short dance films of his own.
Carmen marks his feature directorial debut. Loosely inspired by Georges Bizet's 1875 opera of the same name, Millepied's version transports the tragedy to now — Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal play lovers on the run in modern-day L.A. — and fills it with modern dance, which the director also choreographed, naturally.
Below, Millepied shares with A.frame five films that influenced his own filmmaking sensibilities — with the understanding that it all started with Vertigo.
"I actually went on the Vertigo tour in San Francisco," he shares. "Funny story, I told Natalie I wanted to go on the group tour, and she was like, 'I'm not going on the group tour of Vertigo.' So, we had a private tour of all the locations where the film was shot."
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed by: Mikhail Kalatozov | Written by: Viktor Rozov
The Cranes Are Flying really impressed me for how modern it felt. It's a Russian film that won Cannes, by the director of Soy Cuba and Letter Never Sent. That's a film that uses a really wide lens, and long takes, and takes of great virtuosity and physicality in the actors that are incredibly expressive. That film, I watch quite a lot, just because it has just such unbelievable craft, and the sense of staging, but also sometimes of not moving the camera.
Obviously, it's a very simple drama of this couple that falls in love in war. The war starts and he has to go to war, and she waits for a man that will never come back. When you think of the war in Ukraine now and you think of the wars around the world, it's still such a timely subject. And the way the film is shot, considering the equipment they were using and everything, has such grace on every level still today. The Cranes Are Flying is definitely one of my favorites.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | Written by: Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick
I think that opening sequence to 'The Blue Danube' is maybe the best piece of choreography ever on-screen. It's brilliant. What's dancing is the sets, and the ships, and space, and the pen that's flying. Kubrick had such unbelievable taste for music, and there's a sensibility of movement with music and tension obvious when he uses the Schubert quartet in Barry Lyndon, and other pieces. It's just incredible. He's one of my favorite directors, and 2001: Space Odyssey is one of my favorites. It's just such an unbelievable piece of choreography and movement to music.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Written and Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
I love movement and talking about movement in film. When you see Sanshiro Sugata, the first martial arts film that Kurosawa made, and the use of the camera with movement and martial arts, it's a film to go back and study, because it's outstanding. There's always movement in the scene, always. Whether it's the wind, the rain, the fire, the dust — the movement of nature — and the way that he makes this camera feel so light. His camera feels so light, and go from tight shot to wide shot in single takes. These characters are so physically expressive and inhabited. It's just really, really marvelous. Seven Samurai or Rashomon, those films are a cinema that I just totally, totally, totally love.
Directed by: Wim Wenders | Written by: Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson
Paris, Texas was an influence for this film. I love Robby Müller's approach to the American West and all the films that he shot here. These images still feel so contemporary. I mean, the image of the billboards and the angles, it's such unbelievable photography. The story has very little dialogue and a really incredible electric guitar score that repeats throughout the film. You emotionally become connected to the character and follow along the journey, not really knowing where it's going.
But it's like this perfume of the American West that inhabits you. And it is the most tragic, beautiful ending you could ever imagine. That's one of my favorite films ever, really. I just absolutely love Wim's photography throughout all the films that he made, and that you can see in books. So, that's a really, really outstanding one for me.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni | Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano and Tonino Guerra
What I love about Antonioni is the slowness in his film isn't slowness. It's actually how life is. Things in life take time. And if you think about the experience of time that we have completely corrupted — people are spending their lives caressing a screen — we fill our lives with all these superfluous, unnecessary things. I was reading that on TikTok, the young people are playing music accelerated. They're listening to music faster than it's supposed to be, and it's becoming a thing. Now, musicians are adapting to this new mode. And we have film where you think, 'Let's have multiple cameras! Let's cut and cut and cut, and keep people's attention!'
With Antonioni, you watch a character walk in a room, pick up something, sit down, and that's life. That's actually how time is meant to exist and how he represented it on screen, always. To have this night with these characters and be at this party that is so Italian and so marvelous in how you meet people and move on and come back and play and laugh and get drunk and have this really authentic representation of life — or at least life as it used to be — is something that is worth really looking at.
I try not to be afraid of that in my film — to just take time. And maybe producers or people are like, 'Oh, you need to cut this. You need to cut that,' and I just say no. As long as the atmosphere and the tension is there, I have no desire to cut the scene. Why? The experience is still alive, at least my analysis of it. And so I love Antonioni so much for that. I love L'Avventura too, and the mystery that you have, and things that are unexplained. That's a really, really amazing filmmaker.