Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Thank you, Robert Altman. Coming fast on the heels of one of the worst moviegoing years of recent memory, The Company appears like a wondrous beacon of light. (It even trumps Altman protégé Alan Rudolph's clear-eyed ode to middle class challenges, The Secret Lives of Dentists.) Altman casts his gaze upon the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago: their days and nights, their strict regime and straight-ahead pursuit of artistic expression, and the grueling physical toll of stretching their bodies to the limit. Opening with a modern dance number with performers in skin-tight costumes racing across the stage with multi-colored banners, The Company is like a direct appeal to the heart and mind, to which I can only exclaim, "Wonderful!" and "Beautiful!" It's a reminder of what cinema can do, and the poetry of the dancer's movements is corresponded to with Altman's visual panache, his use of vivid colors, his vividly imaginative framing.
It shames flashy movies like The Matrix sequels, which adopt surface style and frenetic movement but lack sheer, sumptuous vision. Altman's movie isn't just a pretty sheen ("I hate pretty!" snaps Malcolm McDowell as the head of the ballet company), it's a full audio-visual experience. For all the limbs blown apart in Matrix Revolutions it's got nothing on the Company dancers bandaging their bruised heels and toes, or the horrifying moment when a tendon snaps during a rehearsal. It's something we can respond to, relate to. It's emotion pictures, corresponding to the vibrant, emotive images of the dance.
Though the narrative seems tenuous, The Company is a well-observed and enticing portrait of artists at work and at play. It's punctuated by elaborate dance sequences (Altman shows a dancer performing on and around a swing, cutting to images of her feet gliding inches above the floor--a moment among many of transcendence and grace); moved along by rehearsals and the occasional push from McDowell's benevolent tyrant shaking off preconceptions, guiding toward the organic and spontaneous within the tight parameters of dance.
The show that's detailed from start to finish in The Company is an elaborate feat called "Blue Snake," which pushes the dance sequences into (intentional) stylistic excess. Grotesque? Perhaps. But it's an ironic counterpoint to all the sensual pieces that came before, and to his credit Altman takes the frankly overcooked production seriously. He doesn't mock the creators; in fact he embraces them and applauds them. (The closing credits are seen over images of the company dancers taking their bows.) Though I wouldn't argue The Company is a metaphor for Altman's own process, his identification with his fellow craftsmen is palpable, direct, and warts 'n' all honest.
Co-producer Neve Campbell has one of the more substantial roles as Ry, a peripheral dancer who is allowed to cross over into center stage during a few key points in The Company. It's a performance free of vanity, with Campbell literally giving herself over to the ensemble. Ry frequently blends in with her colleagues (mostly actual ballet dancers from the Joffrey company), and is identifiable more as the woman dating another artist (James Franco, not playing a dancer but a master chef). The concept of dancing, or performance, extends into Franco's dexterous cooking -- or during the game of pool where Campbell winsomely looks across the barroom at her future boyfriend sipping a beer, silently admiring her. Words are fleeting, movement and moments seem more palpable and identifiable. The morning after their first night together, spent making breakfast, is mostly played silent.
The Company is one of the more erotic movies of the year, not because of the occasional backstage nudity as dancers change but because of the palpable heat generated by the actors and their physicality. It feels intimate even within the public forum of a staged performance. Altman frequently shoots in long takes, with wide angles showing the full length of the human form. Occasional close-ups show details of hands or feet, or the shuffling of the craftsmen backstage; tracking shots from the audience capture the vibrancy of their enthusiasm. When Campbell is given her first big shot dancing during a wind and rainstorm, leaves scattering across the stage, even Mother Nature swoons.
The Company has all that and more, finding space for an elegy to AIDS, deflation of cultural machismo, a nod to the experienced old in contrast to the impetuous young, safe sex (in an amusing throwaway moment that Altman doesn't throw away), and of harsh and dear life lessons. Altman sometimes claims that he ends his movie with a death (McCabe & Mrs. Miller; Brewster McCloud) because otherwise the film, like a life, would simply go on forever. The Company finds an artful way of handling a death of another kind, and through a few sensitive words and a gesture of romantic bravado suggests the beginning of something new. In a movie that's sexually charged and humane in its intention, what better place to end than the origin of love?
No goofing off on company time.
Facts and Figures
Run time: 112 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 20th May 2004
Box Office USA: $2.2M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 91 Rotten: 38
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Cast & Crew
Director: Robert Altman
Screenwriter: Barbara Turner
Starring: Chris O'Donnell as Jack McAuliffe, Alfred Molina as Harvey Torriti/The Sorcerer, Michael Keaton as James Jesus Angleton/Mother, Rory Cochrane as Yevgeny Tsipin, Alessandro Nivola as Leo Kritzky, Ulrich Thomsen as Starik Zhilov, Natascha McElhone as Elizabet Nemeth, Alexandra Maria Lara as Lili, Simon Callow as MI6 liaison officer Elihu
Also starring: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, Barbara Robertson, William Dick, Susie Cusack, Marilyn Dodds Frank, John Lordan, Mariann Mayberry, Roderick Peeples, Yasen Peyankov, Robert Altman, Joshua Astrachan, Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon, David Levy, Barbara Turner