Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Company (2003)

Robert Altman was fresh off the success of his last film, Gosford Park. He wasn't particularly looking for a new movie, but he found one anyways. Neve Campbell, star of the slasher film Scream, approached Altman to direct the script of a ballet film she wrote with friend Barbara Turner. The script was about ballet, and initially Altman had no desire whatsoever to direct a ballet film. However, Campbell eventually persuaded him to. Both Malcolm McDowell and James Franco were eager to sign on once it was announced that Altman was to direct the film.

The film utilized many members of the Robert Joffrey Ballet in the dance sequences, and Campbell trained hard in order to get ready for the role. The film was shot uneventfully, and on release it did little business. Now, ten years later, the film is still generally unknown, despite the star power involved. It was a 6.1 on IMDb, and 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, evidently critics liked it more than audiences. Still, it was a pretty Altman-esqe film albeit in a more low-key way than most.

Ry is an aspiring dancer working at the Robert Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, run by the perfectionist artistic director Alberto Antonelli. She works nights as a club waitress, to pay the bills. One day, during rehearsals, she gets her chance to shine. She replaces another dancer with a shoulder sprain, and goes on to preform a terrific dance during a thunderstorm outdoors. He dance marks the beginning of her eventual ascension to fame within the company.

She has also recently suffered a breakup from her former dance partner, and this is when she meets Josh. Josh is an aspiring chef working at a classy restaurant in Chicago. They begin a slight romance, which soon blossoms into a great relationship. All the while, the company prepares for a new ballet.

If ever there was a film that defined Altman's style, it is most likely this film. Perhaps the best way to describe it, would be as a series of episodes. Time fades, and ballet's go, while Altman briefly captures images of the whole affair. The whole thing feels like a collection of snapshots, a quality reflected in the ballet's. They kind of act as placeholders, the glue that holds the film together. I do confess, however, that being largely ignorant of the world of ballet, I cannot comment intelligently on the ballet's themselves.

At the risk of sounding like an imbecile, I will say that I found the ballet to be very beautiful, if a bit odd. Campbell proves to be a more than adequate dancer, and her first dance in the rain is indeed beautiful. To be fair, she has a troupe of professional dancers to back her up, and they do well too. I have only seen a few ballet films, only Black Swan and The Red Shoes spring to mind. This seems like the most realistic display of ballet I've seen on film. The ballet's themselves do not feel surrealistic and overblown as in The Red Shoes, nor do they play second fiddle to the camera, as in Black Swan.

I love the way Altman shot the sequences, often from far away and with the backs of audience member's heads in the foreground. This kind of cinematography, really helped make it feel almost like you were part of the performance. Although the ballet itself is very nice and quite pretty, the part which I really enjoyed was what happened in between. Altman really integrates us in Ry's world. It feels like a fantasy world of sorts, a place where you can just fall back and relax. The El train that runs by Ry's apartment makes the whole thing look like a set, and this layers the film, giving it a fantastic edge.

Perhaps a better explanation for how I feel is the romance between Ry and Josh. In no time at all, they are living together like a married couple, and they seem to have suddenly become incredibly intimate together. This kind of fantasy romance, coupled with the film's episodic nature makes you wish that this world was real, but knowing that it is not is enough to make it seem trite. It however, does feel like one is submerging in a warm bath, sliding in until you are completely immersed.

Part of this are the performances by the main cast. I have not seen Neve Campbell in many things, but she fits the glove perfectly in this role. None of the roles require much acting, instead they serve as gateways to a kind of inner character that one sees only after a day or two after watching the film. Campbell, in this respect, is terrific. Her character serves as a kind of blank slate, onto which we can transpose our own feelings. I hope it does not sound as if I am saying that she is not good, for she is. Her character just seems to be the kind that you wish you knew.

Malcolm McDowall is the zealous artistic director of the company, and he is very different here from the other character I've seen him play (I speak of his astounding performance in A Clockwork Orange). I read one review that described him as pompous, but I found no such trait in his portrayal. Similar to Campbell, he serves as a kind of blank slate, and he is quite good in his role again. James Franco, who plays Josh, is a similarly open ended character (with the added bonus of the fact that he looks perpetually high), and he too serves as a good character.

Special mention must of course go to the set designer. The ballet sets are terrific, and as I mentioned above, I love Ry's home set. As well, the room in which the ballerina's practice is used in many scenes and feels incredibly realistic. The score is great in the ballet scenes, and it goes quite well with the terrific imagery and dances on stage. To her credit, Barbara Turner, who wrote the film, gives the film a great structure, which Altman capitalizes on. We are given fleeting snapshots of Ry's life, so we never get to involved, but we never get too bored either.

The cinematography is good, but during the ballet scenes it shines especially. It has a great immersive quality to these scenes, making it seem as if you are part of the audience. Otherwise, the camera mainly stays in the background, where we can absorb the film's events nonchalantly. Thus, we arrive at Altman's direction. At a glance, it appears almost as if he does nothing special with the film. But the more you look at it, the more you realize exactly how great his direction is.

He takes a film that is basically a series of episodes, and transforms it into a flowing, relaxed and confident motion picture. This works both ways, it shuts us out from the character's on the inside, but it allows us to transplant out own inner thoughts into them. To be fair, this is minor Altman, but it is still Altman. While far from perfect, The Company is a very effective "slice of life" kind of experience. Altman may have been on his last legs (this was his penultimate film), but you wouldn't know to look at it. It feels as alive as his great films from the 70s, albeit with a more mature tone, and yet above all it is one thing: A film by Robert Altman.

The Company,
Starring: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowall and James Franco,
Directed by Robert Altman,
7/10 (B)

1. 3 Women
2. The Player
3. Nashville
4. Brewster McCloud
5. Gosford Park
6. A Prairie Home Companion
7. The Company
8. Cookie's Fortune
9. Fool For Love
10. Dr. T and the Women

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