After three decades bucking the system I doubt anyone expects Robert Altman to follow convention, but in his latest film, The Company
, he boils down his usual formula-breaking to a concise art. A project initiated and produced by Neve Cambell, who co-wrote the film’s story with Barbara Turner, The Company is part ballet performance video, and part behind-the-scenes pseudo-documentary. But if this brings to mind the myriad of dramatic plots surrounding performance companies you would be dead wrong. To be sure, Turner’s slight, threadbare screenplay has all the elements of conventional backstage films in it, but her and Altman relegate each drama to a comment overheard, a momentary dialog, or a brief scene quickly forgotten. The young up and comer trying to find his place in
stiff competition; the old star barking orders based on how long she has been with the company; the steely director driven by his own eccentric motivations; the inter-company affair that threatens to tear the group apart-its all there but none of it is The Company
's focus. Its focus, if any, is Altman’s recordings of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s performances. Their non-actor members make up the bulk of the film’s characters, though talented mid-level dancer Ry (Neve Campbell) and company director Alberto Antonelli (Malcom McDowell) get what, on the film’s terms, are the starring roles behind the scenes. Off the stage Ry waitresses at a club in her off time and finds a new boyfriend; Antonelli, the abrupt, abrasive director, barks humorously vague directions and leaves before anyone can really ask what he thinks. That’s all there is too it really, the bulk of The Company
are not the in-between bits but the dance performances. As ballet numbers no opinion can be offered without some knowledge of the art, but cinematically they are the film’s highlight. Altman fluently cuts slowly and elegantly, placing the viewer in the place of the audience, behind the audience, and as a member of the crew and in the rafters, and he handles the numbers effortlessly, lifting up the film with the feather light grace of its dancers. A few of the numbers are spectacularly staged-the most contrived dance, set outside in a park during a rainstorm and the only time Campbell is given the spotlight, is marvelously danced by Campbell and delicately staged by Altman, and achieves a sexy, hypnotic beauty that gently wafts through the rest of the film. (As the audience refuses to leave Ry’s performance, despite rain, wind and thunderstorms, their umbrellas come up and Altman uses them as the bottom of his frame while shooting Campbell’s performance. It is an amazing shot, and one cannot help recall the ridiculous film-pitch in The Player
about paper-lantern-like umbrellas).
The film’s ultra-thin narrative be damned; Altman has made one very light, very slight, very watchable and very enjoyable film. It never strives to say anything in particular, and the
backroom drama-what there is of it anyway-is so brief, oblique and elliptical that it merely provides an air of impromptu, on-the-fly context for the dance numbers. That is not to say these bits are throwaway; there are many fine moments, though they all revolve around Campbell and McDowell, who gives an endearing tongue-in-cheek performance. One of the few shining exceptions is Marilyn Dodds Frank who plays Ry’s mother and in typical Altman fashion starts off in the background, gets one long, stellar scene of pithy lines and a strong performance and is promptly whirled into the background with the rest of the company. The screenplay’s one gaffe is a Christmas party roast the company puts on and its contents directly quote and mock only the characterizations and moments seen in the film itself. It is an unfortunate mistake, because Turner and Altman’s style, though making the company vague as a whole, also makes it feel alive, living and breathing, breaking off into separate narrative strands never picked up; the Christmas roast stops these strands dead in their tracks, mistakenly implying that all we have been shown is all there is to see. The Company
asserts this is hardly the case; it is a wonderfully light, oftentimes slow-burning film of little depth but terrific artistic beauty.