Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Company

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE COMPANY

8/10

USA (USA-Ger) 2003 : Robert ALTMAN : 112 mins

Loretta Ry Ryan (Neve Campbell) is an ambitious young dancer at Chicagos Joffrey Ballet Company. As the company under the leadership of autocratic Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell) prepares to unveil a major new work, Ry must cope with the demands of her on- and off-stage lives. Having recently dumped her boyfriend, she soon embarks a whirlwind romance with handsome trainee chef Josh (James Franco). Her dancing improves but the shadow of injury is never far away…

Well, that’s how a nervous publicist might attempt to sell The Company. And such a synopsis wouldn’t be factually inaccurate: all of these things do actually happen on screen. But they do so more or less en passant, in parenthesis conveyed in the most offhand manner. Anyone expecting a conventional dramatic story from this film will end up with much less or, rather, much more than they’d bargained for.

Because The Company is about as far from standard-issue Hollywood storytelling as its possible to get. The script may be by Barbara Turner (from a story by Turner and Campbell), but, as were reminded with almost every frame, this is very much a Robert Altman movie. And what a joy it is to see the 79-year-old maestro in such brilliant, relaxed form.

Julie Patterson in Robert Altman 's sublime The CompanyThen again, one is reminded of the famous cinema-queue scene from Annie Hall, in which a dull academic is overheard loudly showing off to his companion. Saw the new Fellini last week. Not one of his best. Lacks a … cohesive structure. Substitute Altman for Fellini, and the comment fits The Company quite well. It isnt up there with, say, Nashville or The Long Goodbye, The Player or Short Cuts. And a cohesive structure is hardly on the menu. But compared with the hackneyed, fumbling efforts of most Hollywood directors, The Company is a sublime, radical use of the cinematic medium and it must take some kind of genius to spin out a two hour, near-plotless film on a relatively esoteric subject, and come up with something so absorbingly magical and transcendent (not to mention accessible for both sexes). Billy Elliot it most certainly aint.

Though less universally accessible than Altmans last picture – surprise arthouse hit Gosford Park (which earned him a Best Director nomination at the Oscars), The Company is a more rewarding, organic, original sort of work – with a character all of its own. Grace notes abound, and Altman fans will revel in the many different versions of My Funny Valentine which lace the soundtrack (cf The Long Goodbye in The Long Goodbye) though Altman-haters will no doubt find plenty to set their teeth on edge. Even they will concede, however, that the film is often very funny, with McDowell excellent value value in his numerous brief appearances as the autocratic Mr A. It doesn’t matter one bit that his character, who at one point receives the Columbus Medal for Italian-American achievement, neither looks or sounds like any such thing – if anything, he resembles the venerable ballet legend Merce Cunningham.

McDowell feigns interest in the proceedings very convincingly as does Altman himself, whose camerawork (in tandem with cinematographer Andrew Dunn and editor Geraldine Peroni) nimbly captures a wide range of dance performances, both old-school and modern. These include a showstoppingly graceful rope routine by Julie Patterson to the accompaniment of a haunting Julee Cruise number (a nod, perhaps, to David Lynch, whom Altman seemed to be getting along with very well when they sat together at the 2002 Oscars). By this point the film has cast such a spell that it doesn’t much matter that the climactic Blue Snake (which looks like out-takes from New Orders True Faith video) is more likely to provoke guffaws than gasps of admiration.

In fact, it comes as some surprise to find that Blue Snake is a real (1985) ballet by a genuine, acclaimed choreographer, Robert Desrosiers, who appears as himself. Many viewers will no doubt have suspected that the pretentious Desrosiers and his daft (though very colourful) ballet are satirical inventions of Altman and Turner. Then again, Altman can be such a deliciously, acidly misanthropic film-maker you wouldn’t put it past him to have included Blue Snake with the main goal of presenting modern dance in the worst possible light.

25th March, 2004
(seen 24th March : National Museum of Photography Film and Television, Bradford Bradford Film Festival)

For more reviews of films from the Bradford Film Festival 2004 click here

by Neil Young