Monday, February 09, 2004

The Company

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (first-run)

The Company is something of an odd film. It has a star in Neve Campbell, and an outline for a plot, but abjectly refuses to be a conventional narrative. In a more conventional movie, the scene early on where the Joffrey Ballet's lead dancer confesses she may not be able to handle her workload any more would lead to a competition among dancer to fill the slot, and Loretta Ryan (Campbell) might find herself having to choose between the company and her romance with a local sous-chef (James Franco). The melodrama might be heightened by another lover in the person of one of the company's male dancers, or family pressure, or trying to balance her commitment to the company with a job to pay the rent. There would be rivalries and mentors and a triumphant final scene in which "Ry" proves herself worthy of the position.

And while most of that happens, director Robert Altman refuses to make The Company a melodrama. What goes on behind the scenes in this environment is interesting enough, he apparently feels, without changing it to fit the story arc an audience expects to see. Performance footage is also intercut, and only about half the time is it really part of the story. The rest of the time, it is either used to demonstrate what these characters are working toward, or just to break up a group of similar scenes. It's also worth seeing in its own right; as beautiful as ballet is, it's not something that is really part of mainstream culture in the United States. While some of the early interludes may come off as sort of artsy-fartsy and weird, others are more traditional, and seeing the dancers during practice and their off-hours as relatively normal young people gives new appreciation to just how physically demanding this art form is.

Indeed, one of the most memorable scenes is one where a dancer lands just wrong, and a sickening snapping sound comes from her ankle. The only thing I can compare it to is watching someone being seriously injured during a baseball game, where there's just enough background noise (in this case, music) for the sound to be clearly audible, and for the rest of the environment to go silent afterward.

The performances are, in general, good, though that's sort of beside the point. Of the three billed performers, Malcolm McDowell is the only one really called upon to emote as the company's artistic director, and though he creates a larger-than-life character, he never goes overboard. James Franco is pleasant and likable as The Boyfriend, and Neve Campbell is eminently believable as Ry, even doing all her own dancing. Much of the rest of the cast is the actual members of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet Company, and none of them are stiff on camera. Indeed, Campbell seems to fit right in, adding to the film's authenticity.

Though The Company is a fictional, narrative film, it bears a closer resemblence to a performance piece or a documentary. If you feel character and story must be paramount in a narrative movie, this will be disappointing. However, the sheer beauty of the performance segments is worthwhile, and I found the fly-on-the-wall aspect of the rest quite fascinating. It's a chance to learn something new, just by watching people go about their work, without the feeling that someone is trying to teach you something specific that often goes with a documentary.

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