Carmen: nice try, but no cigarette

Carmen - Ben King
Carmen - Ben King

You get Paul Mescal as a brooding soldier, but there’s no oiseau rebelle anywhere to be found in this new film going by the name of Carmen, which is overwhelmed by its music score – and this isn’t even Bizet. It’s Nicholas Britell (he of Moonlight and Succession), going big here on flamenco fanfare, which risks turning the entire experience into a two-hour music video. The dancing and photography are striking, and the acting’s perfectly fine. But the sum of it all is a moony inertia, lacking any awakening spark of life.

It’s the feature debut of Benjamin Millepied, the French dancer best-known on film for choreographing Natalie Portman’s routines for Black Swan (who then, reader, married him). He has taken Carmen into the Mexican desert and refashioned Mérimée’s story unrecognisably. As played mainly in Spanish by Scream’s Melissa Barrera, she’s now a runaway wildcat, whose mother (Marina Tamayo) kicks things off doing a zapateado tap routine on a board laid across the sand, interrupted when two armed members of a cartel shoot her dead.

Coming to Carmen’s rescue is border guard Aidan (Mescal), an ex-Marine with PTSD. He’s no longer seduced to his doom, like Don José, by her gypsy wiles, but teams up in a lovers-on-the-lam getaway, having killed a fellow member of his patrol.

The script is awfully vague about their ongoing predicament: they wind up penniless at a nightclub on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where the best friend of Carmen’s ma (played by Almodóvar legend Rossy de Palma, with eyes painted onto her eyelids) rules the roost.

Barrera, who already proved she could dance in In the Heights, does terrifically well with some demanding stretches of choreography here. But these sequences lack motivation – they’re just snazzy interludes while the plot fizzles out.

Mescal, meanwhile, gets a brief acoustic ballad at the start, and does his bruised masculinity thing to reliably smouldering effect. The love story is purely gestural, though – not for want of chemistry, but just because Millepied barely gives it a chance to take root. Far from making their brief moments of collision all the headier, keeping these two apart while nothing is happening is a criminal waste.

Neon in the dust. Rings of fire outside a desert amusement park. This film dishes out undeniable eye-candy, and adorns it with extravagant swathes of Britell in his pomp. But it isn’t quite cinema, so much as an extended showreel for some pseudo-Carmen, half sketched out in Millepied’s mind.

15 cert, 117 min. In selected cinemas from Friday June 2