The Company (2003)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
There’s no better way to enter the world of high art, than with an audience rudely chatting as a ballet performance is about to start. The talkers are of course prodded by the dedicated loyalists with loud shushes. Robert Altman’s The Company examines the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago casually through seasons of ballet. The film wanders about different members and aspects of the company, with the only narrative constants being the direction of Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell) and each of the company’s performances. It often shows the personal lives of company members, early philosophical explorations of each ballet, practices in between, and culminates in an actual filmed performance of the ballet by the Joffrey Ballet. Many of the actors are actually members from the Joffrey Ballet inserted to presumably add authenticity to the portrayal of the company.
Altman’s approach is clearly meant to evoke documentary, structurally and with the insertion of actual company members.
Altman’s approach is clearly meant to evoke documentary, structurally and with the insertion of actual company members. In fact, watching The Company immediately evoked Wiseman’s recent documentary At Berkeley, as both films are wandering portraits of an institution that tend to fascinate but sometimes bore. Unfortunately, Altman isn’t quite able to accomplish authenticity. The main reason is the performances. The large ensemble cast of supporting characters are above average but never particularly compelling. McDowell is a perfectly fine director, but pales in comparison to many other portrayals of theater and ballet directors like Vincent Cassel in Aronofsky’s recent Black Swan or Anton Walbrook in 1948 ballet cinema classic The Red Shoes. James Franco is average as a minor love interest, with this performance being fairly early in his career. The real gem of the film though, is the intoxicating Neve Campbell as a young star performer. Her dancing is both beautiful and evocative of her character, especially in the first half of The Company.
Perhaps Altman’s attempt was to make more mainstream audiences understand the otherwise inapproachable high art of ballet.
The other star of the film, is Altman’s vision of the company’s ballet shows. It’s no secret that this is the centerpiece of the film as the opening credits are literally four minutes of filmed ballet. The scenes around the performances contextualize our view of the show as the audience. This notion of the shows being less gallant is drawn from the director’s commands in a practice session, complaining “You’re all so pretty, you know how I hate pretty!” Perhaps Altman’s attempt was to make more mainstream audiences understand the otherwise inapproachable high art of ballet. He’s less successful than the previously mentioned more impressionistic Aronofsky film Black Swan, or Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Each show is far more intriguing and worthwhile than the contextual scenes.
One of the most striking images in the film is from the opening fifteen minutes, as dancers enter into the practice room. Most of the dancers are already in the room, but just one or two are late. When the first latecomer opens the door it’s surprising, as the film viewer discovers that part of the mirror was a door. Does this enclosure of mirrors imply that the film viewer is entering a reflection of these souls, or the soul of the ballet? Or perhaps The Company will be a reflection of the ridiculousness of high art? It’s hard to say really, as the film is never much more than a simple depiction of the company with its characters being more set dressings than people. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from Altman, perhaps one expects a deeper humanity.
The film is never much more than a simple depiction of the company with its characters being more set dressings than people. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from Altman, perhaps one expects a deeper humanity.