By Patrick Z. McGavin
Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)—Idiosyncratic and fascinating French actor Mathieu Amalric is also a director of ability and talent; he is clearly comfortable in front and behind the camera. Amalric’s films seem permeated with the same off-hand, intoxicating and virtuoso talents he displays as an actor (“The Divine Bell and the Butterfly”). They balance a rigor and finesse with a willingness to project a quiet vulnerability and plaintive desperation.
Amalric’s fourth feature, “Tournee” (“On Tour”) about a group of American burlesque stars traveling through France, is a natural for his gifts for the off-rhythms and melancholy underside of the actor’s inner life. At its best, the movie captures with tenderness and observational precision the desperation and solitary habits of those performers who work in disreputable forms and non-traditional formats.
The movie carries a deeper feminist subtext, grounded as it is the voluptuousness and beauty of the female form. Cast exclusively with authentic performers in the style of the “new burlesque,” a funky, exhilarating form of cabaret and live performance, the movie has a documentary realism and sharpness that carries it through the rough spots and dramatic lulls.
It is really more effective as a series of acts and moments than as a fully articulated work. But when the movie jells, drawn to the habits and rituals of this exotic and eccentric world, it really sings.
At times, the movie plays like an unusual arrangement of Federico Fellini’s “8 ½,” John Cassavetes’s “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and Robert Aldrich’s “All the Marbles.” It atomizes a world, both back stage and on, of the showgirl ethos with its unfettered sexuality, showmanship and erotic reverie. (Amalric said in the notes he was primarily influenced by Colette’s text, “The Other Side of Music Hall.”)
As an actor Amalric has an expressive face, darting eyes and a body capable of either going hard or soft. In his magisterial work for Arnaud Desplechin (“My Sex Life,” “A Christmas Tale”), Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and Olivier Assayas (“Late August, Early September”) he is fearless, wiling to project a desperation and loutishness or devilish weakness that gives him a distinctly human component.
In “Tournee,” he’s the downtrodden impresario Joachim Zand. He’s a former prominent Paris television producer hell bent on escaping his own ruin and damaged reputation. He is both failure and dreamer who’s convinced of his own ability to salvage his name and reputation. He’s determined to wind up on top, or at least on his own terms.
“Tournee” works in very recognizable forms of the dissolute charmer trying to hold a lot of loose ends together, hoping finally to eviscerate the bad luck that has constantly shadowed him. His resurgence comes in the enthralling and enticing form of a group of American showgirls on a tour of the French seaport towns and regional outposts, places like Nantes (where Jacques Demy made his great early works, like “Lola”).
Amalric developed the script with Philippe Di Folco, Marcelo Novais Teles and Raphaelle Valbrune. It’s a sketch film ostensibly, the story more anecdotal and character-driven than shaped by an enveloping plot and shifting mood and development. The story’s predicated on movement and drift, carried by the considerable charms of Amalric and the retinue of tough, sexy, emphatic American women.
Early on the tour, Joachim is incensed to discover a former business associate has renounced him and refused to rent his theater hall for his tour. Desperate to find a new venue, Joachim must suddenly own up to all the people he’s screwed over his past, like his brother, his two young children, in order to make do for his girls.
Dramatically, “Tournee” shuttles between two worlds, the hypnotic and fascinating on stage personas of the women and the more material, beat down world Joachim must inhabit to ensure the show goes on. The form works has a on and off momentum. Joachim has a roguish charm that proves fairly irresistible. There’s a night encounter at a gas station between Joachim and a sexy, available cashier (Aurelia Petit) that is absolutely wondrous, funny, sexy and tinged with regret about missed chances.
Joachim is a natural heartbreaker. There’s clearly something, either in the past, or about to unfold, between him and the leading act on the show, the blonde bombshell, Mimi (Miranda Colclasure). The movie, on many levels, is concerned with her as fetish. The movie opens with her backstage, stripping down, slowly, imperceptibly, revealing herself, the elaborate tattoos and her sexualized body.
If “On Tour” gets frustrating at times, it is Amalric is on to too much of a good thing. The women are electric, but he does not always spend sufficient time individuating them. (It times the movie hints at but never quite reaches the same level of the professional, backstage milieu that Darren Aronofsky captured so evocatively in “The Wrestler”). The story turns more episodic, peculiar and strange (the gas station movement is echoed later on with a bizarre encounter at a supermarket checkout), and the storytelling is sometimes a little too halting and underdeveloped. At times I thought the story was too much concerned with Joachim’s back story and attempted redemption, and it should have been more about the women.
“Tournee” is studded with a sadness and regret. The women are professionals, proud of and dedicated to their work, but it’s clear being removed from their homeland and set aside in a strange and alien world, has unmoored and great many of them. The sadness is reflected visually (some very sharp work by the cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne) in the recurrent visual designs of cramped, dingy hotel rooms, dark stages and claustrophobic train interiors.
But the movie’s lack of permanence, the absence of resolution, is also one of its key qualities. That’s how the movie ends, in a Fellini-like moment of the group all alone, in a vast and imperial hotel space, with its emptied out swimming pool, where the different people are made painfully aware of the limitations and sometimes squalor of their conditions. But they revel in it, in their own way, accepting, open and ready for the next adventure.