The first voice heard in Robert Altman’s The Company is that of Van Dyke Parks, underrated composer whose idiosyncrasies and approach to richly American musical styles are such a perfect fit for Altman that it begs the question as to why they had only worked together once before, Parks handling the orchestration duties for Harry Nilsson’s score for Popeye. Along with scoring The Company, Parks is the disembodied voice of an announcer who gently warns the audience to turn off all cell phones and pagers and that flash bulbs can actually be harmful to the performers. Boldly reasserting to the audience that they’re watching a film is a riff Altman had pulled off before, most notably with The Player and Brewster McCloud. Here, the film opens on a performance by the Joffre Ballet which is an incredibly kinetic, percolating piece replete with criss-crossing streamers that always looks as if they’re going to ensnare the dancers. From the performance that occupies the opening credit sequence, it is more than clear that it takes brass balls to get into this gang. And it is on both the professional level and an artistic level that Altman, working from a script by Barbara Turner, wants to penetrate it.
The Company is a deconstruction of performance and performance art. It spends more time in rehearsals and on the stage than it does on any of the characters, a decision that both makes sense and is also very risky. But one doesn’t have to even like ballet to appreciate The Company, a film that highlights the reduction of the human element to create a streamlined thing of beauty. This is not too dissimilar from Gosford Park which separated the crisp appearances of the elite and the human machinery that made it so with a simple flight of stairs.
The film operates in a cloistered environment that feels vaguely foreign and it doesn’t have time to stop to explain itself; nor does it much want to. This world moves on a very specific time table and you’ll either get into its rhythm or you won’t. While the ballet may seem like an odd subject for Altman, there is a kinship between it and his work as both are crucially bound to the precision and movement of many different parts that all come together to create a unified whole. In other words, almost everything about it is perfect for Altman’s vision.
The story of The Company mostly centers on the rise of Ry (Neve Campbell), member of the Joffre Ballet Company by day and bartender by night, currently dealing with the end of a romantic relationship with another dancer in the company while gaining newfound exposure by performing a routine early in the film. As was Altman’s wont, all of these pieces of information flow directly toward the viewer in bits and asides that depend on how attuned his or her radar is for the rhythm and the style. And it’s forever propulsive, never taking a break to reorient itself. The Company’s laser-focus on its subject matter is embodied in a quick glance Ry shoots at her ex, now entangled with another member of the company. She registers the hurt before putting it away almost immediately, concentrating back on the rehearsals for the Blue Snake dance, a routine that threads itself through the entirety of The Company, conception to stunning finished product.
If The Company is lacking a certain kind of sustained warmth, it’s because these people have little time for themselves. When love does seep in, it’s more like sunlight through the blinds than it pours in through a picture window. James Franco’s Josh Williams, chef on the come, gets shortchanged in the narrative but there really is no way around that. The Company isn’t a rom com about a budding dancer and a novice chef who have a meet cute and proceed in orderly fashion. This is a serious film about people who take their craft seriously all of which looks glamorous on the surface but is, as Robbie Robertson would say in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, “a goddamn impossible way of life.” Even the bar encounter between Ry and Josh where he watches her play pool against the stains of Elvis Costello feels like a playful, ethereal dance in and of itself. We never see them speak or introduce themselves but that they wake up next to each other in the following scene and mumble over mundane breakfast preparation feels entirely natural in its prolonged unfolding. The scene doesn’t really resolve itself because it’s not important to. When they go to a bowling alley for a date later in the film, it’s all arm candy and appearances before everything quickly snaps back to rehearsals. The Company is on a tight schedule.
The Company doesn’t have a traditional payoff or dramatic structure; its narrative propulsion driven only by the performance calendar. The universe in which it toils is so contained and we hew so closely to it that the Christmas roast, which unfolds in documentary-style real time, becomes the warmest piece in the film, all its targets and routines familiar to the audience by the time they hit. No singular player in the ballet company steals the show because the show and the ballet company work as a singular player.
Among its many successes, one of the things The Company achieves rather brilliantly is being one of the best films since Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz to show just how much hard work goes into show business and how there is always a commercial/family dynamic which is always at odds with itself. When Suzanne (played by real-life Joffre member Suzanne Prisco) snaps her Achilles’ tendon during rehearsals, the viewer can’t help but feel it. But The Company doesn’t let anyone wallow in any pity for anyone as the Suzanne is hustled off stage within a minute and another dancer steps up to perform the piece which is captured dazzlingly as Suzanne, her dancing career likely over, watches in the wings. The show must go on, even if it means someone’s dream gets crushed in the process. Barbara Jean, eat your heart out.
The film mostly flows through its three leads and they all mesh with the material beautifully. Neve Campbell’s laconic style is perfect match as she’s able to utilize her skill for the understated to radiate a high level of sophistication and social grace, evidenced by how she eviscerates her ex-boyfriend with a mile-wide smile and a sting with no uncertain terms amid a post-show wrap party. James Franco’s laid back goof works to his advantage here as they both achieve a kind of low-key realism in their scenes together.
But it is Malcolm McDowell’s Alberto Antonelli, harried head of the company, who is most frequently brilliant. He oftentimes seems possessed by the unfazed spirit of Nashville’s Opal Form the BBC what with his ridiculous and hilarious postulations and bottomless confidence in himself. He might be stuffy and forever certain but the value of his wisdom has not run dry and there are times when it becomes quite understood that McDowell is working as a stand-in for Altman himself. When McDowell counsels his class with “It’s not the steps, babies. It’s what’s inside that counts. That’s when you really soar. Thinking the movement is not becoming the movement,” it sounds like Altman giving a small class in character study through someone else’s voice. This is likewise the case when McDowell makes a heartfelt plea for tolerance at an awards banquet, a full-throated articulation of Altman’s love for the marginalized characters that have peppered his films throughout the years.
Also nice is seeing Altman pay filmmaker David Lynch a compliment after being nominated for his final Best Director Oscar alongside Lynch the year before. By lifting a Julie Cruise tune, forever etched in the minds of audiences as a piece of music made famous for its inclusion in Twin Peaks, Altman reframes the song by setting it against a gorgeous routine in which the dancer is suspended in the air, keeping the haunting beauty of the song intact but making it far less malevolent. Reinterpretation and repurposing at its finest and most respectful.
Essentially a unique musical in ballet, The Company is an amazing example of how a filmmaker of Altman’s vintage could still find clever and breathtakingly inspired ways to examine cinematic form while still turning out work as deeply felt as it was intriguingly experimental.
Oh, and as for Lynch and Altman’s Oscar moment, they both lost to Ron Howard. Upon the announcement of Howard’s name as the winner, Altman went over to Lynch and comforted him by saying “It’s better this way, David.”
What a pro.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain