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The Company (PG-13) (2003)

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Robert Altman

Producers: Robert Altman, Joshua Astrachan, Neve Campbell, Pamela Koffler, David Levy, Christine Vachon

Written by: Neve Campbell, Barbara Turner

Cast: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco

Rating: out of 5

I recently attended the memorial service for the father of my friend. It was held at a Lutheran church and, not being religious in the least, I had no idea what to expect. Middle-aged women and men awkwardly scrunched into drab dresses and suits were there, as were the more casually dressed, more awkward adolescents, as were my friends, as was I. I immediately felt out of place. The majority of the service consisted of the pastor, whose forced smile never once waned, slogging gracelessly through an unrehearsed, 20-minute monologue much more about the importance of the church than the void left by my friend’s father, who had been a very good man. In the pews, amidst the bereaved, I clasped my hands together and tilted my head continuously toward the floor; I was angry and unnerved that this was my friend’s father’s goodbye, that the pastor was offensively embarrassing to listen to, that this was, indeed, everyday life. That it all seemed so absurd and artificial and borderline hilarious and sad, in the worst of ways. In seeing Robert Altman’s The Company, I was reminded of that afternoon in the church; the film is a chronicle of those feelings and emotions.

And it’s about so much more. It’s about the sounds of traffic that seep through closed windows in the city. It’s about falling on your ass the first time you meet your new girlfriend’s friends. It’s about leotards form-fitting against steep, right-angular female pubic bones and penises which point upward like a shaman praying for fresh rain. It’s about rain falling at simultaneously the best and worst of times. It’s about the patterings and thumps that feet make on stage, but that only the performers are close enough to hear. It’s about Achilles tendons that snap like the wills of inebriated 18-year-old girls contemplating tattoos. It’s about friendship and longing and ambitions and expectations (both met and not) and loss and routine and belonging and not belonging and cooking and red monkey costumes and every day of your life.  And it is also about ballet. Sort of.

The Company most closely follows Loretta “Ry” Ryan (Campbell), a member of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, as she: works to attain prestige among her company-mates; attempts to get over a failed relationship; forms a new relationship with a boy mysteriously known only as “Josh” (Franco); and prepares for her part in the Joffrey Ballet’s upcoming show, “Blue Snake”. And that’s it. Then it ends. Well, okay, maybe it’s not that black-and-white. Other events do occur, such as: the dictatorial gallivanting of the ballet’s headmaster, Alberto Antonelli (McDowell); the arrival of a new dancer, and his troubles in finding a place to sleep; the expression of discouragement by an established dancer, whose promised show is delayed by Antonelli; the injury of a dancer in the middle of a rehearsal for that night’s show. And then it ends. Really. Without ever granting closure or resolution to any conflict-laden situation in Ry’s life, or attempting to address the maelstrom of subplots raised by the film’s nigh-anonymous supporting characters, even. The Company fails to deliver a tangible story, with beginning, middle, and end, and intentionally distances the audience from its sinewy, sexy cast, but this failure is also the film’s greatest virtue.

Altman wisely chose to disregard conventional methods of storytelling and filmmaking in The Company, and what easily could have gangrened into Showgirls-lite instead pirouettes proudly upon its bruised, celluloid toes. What The Company produces, story-wise, is not formulaic, trite drama, but something more akin to docudrama, and more akin to life. Plotlines aren’t always allowed to conclude, feuds continue indefinitely, people get hurt and aren’t always just fine. Altman’s film is a cross-section of the lives of these characters, much like last year’s similarly meandering, chronology-defying All The Real Girls, which serves up the essence of what it is to be a member of any highly specialized group, be it a ballet company or, hypothetically, an advertising firm, without casting any judgments, without praise or condemnation. The potency of The Company’s anti-story is that it successfully illustrates the Joffrey Ballet members, who appear so indestructible on stage, as being fallible offstage, as bumbling and clumsy as the rest of us. It evokes levels of sympathy, sadness, and quiet humor without resorting to Oprah’s Book Club levels of cheap sentimentality. It simply rings true.

The film’s documentary aesthetic only heightens the aforementioned aspect of truth: No overdubbed music interrupts speaking characters, though car horns and clutter from outside the Joffrey Ballet building shamelessly pervades. The quality of the film stock is grainy, soft, and comfortable, and devoid of any highly stylized and unnecessary Matrix-greens or Underworld-blues. Shot selection during dialogues is simple and unobtrusive, while during ballet numbers the camera often whips between backstage pillars, is washed out by the harsh stage lights, and steals quick shots of dancers struggling to change costumes between showpieces, exposing us to the behind-curtains bustle and the unglamorous mechanics of the dreamy productions.

Granted, the characters who constitute The Company are, substantially, undernourished and depth-deficient. The lead actors do a commendable job of adding flesh to their sparse roles and, most importantly, contribute to their characters an element of viable humanity, without which The Company would have resembled bad puppet theater or an extended episode of “Degrassi Junior High.” Most impressive is Neve Campbell, who here rises above the specter of slasher films and infuses Ry with both force and vulnerability. Campbell carries the film despite her atypical “leading” role. Her ballet performances are similarly striking and confident. Malcolm McDowell, the droog amongst droogs, captures all scenes in which he appears with a foppish, scarf-flapping fervor not seen since Mary Poppins, and reminds us of why his 1990s banishment to the “Wing Commander” series of PC games was such a lamentable tragedy. And James Franco, bless his James Dean-looking heart, does all that he can to overcome the fact that Josh speaks only about five words throughout the entire film. To his credit, he defines his vaporous character with the earnest smile he flashes to an old, celebratory man on New Year’s night.

Ultimately, The Company is an ethereal construct, much more evocative than conclusive, much more fleeting than affirming. The juxtaposition of the stark uneasiness exuded by the dramatic scenes with the lavish faux-precision of the ballet performances creates not only a momentum which propels the storyless film near the two-hour mark without any major missteps, but it also parallels the absurdness and artificiality of living life. Those unchained by the constraints of traditional storytelling and filmmaking will find much to appreciate beneath The Company’s crotch-and-buttock-clasping spandex façade. It’s a stimulating film and a challenging one.

—Nathan Baran


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