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The Company
by Carla Freccero

Film review aired 2/17/04 and 2/18/04.

Now playing at the Nick in Santa Cruz, The Company is the latest Robert Altman film. Altman has made many many and some very odd movies—Gosford Park, Dr T & the Women, Cookie’s Fortune, Jazz, Prêt-à-Porter, etc. and of course made my generation sit up and pay attention with three films coming out fast in 1970 and 1971: MASH, Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This film has none of the edginess of those others, nor the cameo appearances by stars we’re so used to being surprised by, except, of course, if you really know your stuff in the world of ballet. But what it does have is beauty, color, an appreciation for the de-individualized collectivity that usually gets underrepresented in portraits of ballet dancers, a real dance company and dancers—the Joffrey Ballet—and moments when the dance takes you out of the world and into the sublime.

Neve Campbell, co-producer/writer of the film and an ex-dancer who trained for two years to play this role, stars as Ry, a new arrival to the company who is being groomed for great parts. She’s plausible in all except the first of the scenes, where she seems to replace another ballerina (because the other dancer has a neck spasm) in rehearsal for the pas de deux she will eventually perform on an open-air stage as a thunderstorm begins to stir. In the studio, the dancers practice a series of two particularly beautiful lifts in the dance—choreographed by Lars Lubovitch to the song, "My Funny Valentine"—and one cannot help but notice the contrast between the "real’ ballerina’s graceful alternations of tension and relaxation and Campbell’s muscular stiffness. But the performance per se works remarkably well. Malcolm McDowell plays company director Alberto Antonelli and, though nicely extravagant, comic, and warm, his English accent seems to jar with his reputed Italian American origins. The third actual actor here is James Dean look alike James Franco as Josh, a sous-chef in a bistro who falls for Ry and displays extraordinary devotion by cooking her gourmet meals after a long night’s work and good-naturedly putting up with the fact that Ry introduces him neither to her family nor to many of her friends.

There’s no story, really, at least not of the narrative plot variety. This is a movie about a ballet company, about a group of odd and oddly subdued mostly youngsters who live and breathe the dance. The performance sequences are captivating, though I have heard connoisseurs complain that the camera does not occupy a properly respectful position from which to film dance, jumping around as it does, at times shooting from angles that make it difficult to watch the moves. But I was enchanted. Though the movie is two hours long and none of the actors do any serious acting, the moments when the continually rehearsed athletic sequences turn into a dance succeed in reaching beyond the mundane to achieve beauty that is both aching and sublime. Strange how the bodies of ballet dancers, so exhaustively tended, stretched, strengthened, disciplined, almost dissolve on stage into the movement itself, becoming as abstract as I can imagine a body being. Except, of course, when one of them is injured, and here there’s a moment that will have you wincing for hours to come.

Critics complain that there’s too much idealization going on and that the narrative undercurrents are so virtual they end up merely annoying the story-hungry viewer. It’s true, there are mere nods to AIDS, drug use, injury. No mention of eating disorders (but thank goodness, since so many stories about ballet are obsessed with this dimension of it). But I think Altman was looking for something else, looking for the way a group of people—and in this film it doesn’t matter much whether they are men or women—become a single organism or machine and subdue their very beings to become part of something bigger. In that he succeeds admirably.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.