Although ostensibly an ensemble comedy drama, Robert Altman’s seminal 1975 film Nashville was as much a musical as a study of character and place. The film would frequently pause to showcase the songs of its performers – sometimes several in a row – with no great urgency to get back to the stories. This is the approach that Altman adopts for The Company, an intimate look at the work of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company. Working from a script by Barbara Turner and co-producer/star Neve Campbell, Altman’s film is part semi-documentary – 90% of the cast play themselves – part drama and part dance movie. The Company is as light on actual ‘plot’ as any film in the director’s filmography; there are characters, relationships and dramatic scenes but very little story to string them together. As Altman himself says: "I'm not much interested in stories anyway. I'm more interested in reactive behaviour."
Campbell plays Ry, an upcoming dancer with the Joffrey, which is run by Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell), a flamboyant man constantly trying to balance the artistic side of his company with the harsh realities of finding finance for their productions. Elsewhere, there’s Josh (James Franco), a young chef who begins a romance with Ry, Robert Desrosiers (playing himself), the company’s ambitious choreographer, and a large cast of dancers, trainers, parents and producers. We never learn much about these people – Altman’s technique is to just drop in on them, spending enough time to get the gist of the scene before moving off elsewhere.
In less certain hands this could be incredibly frustrating, but Altman is an old hand at this sort of thing, and his cast – both professionals and non-professionals – rise to challenge. Much of the time is spent observing rehearsals and the tensions that the long hours and intense physical demands of the dances inevitably create. There’s a quietly shocking moment when a dancer snaps her Achilles tendon – both she and her colleagues know instantly that her career is now over, but no one can let it interrupt rehearsals; she is quickly and quietly replaced by another dancer. Malcolm McDowell has a moving scene where he speaks about the devestating effect that AIDS had upon the ballet community during the '80s: "Such a terrible disease, so many losses..." And the budding romance between Campbell and Franco is nicely handled through glances, movement and little dialogue. Both have creative careers that mean long hours and late nights (Ry also works in a bar to support herself), but Altman presents this is an accepted reality, not as a source of contrived drama that a lesser director might.
It’s during the ballet sequences that The Company really takes flight. These range from the traditional to the modern, and Altman and director of photography Andrew Dunn capture the beauty of the performances by shooting with multiple high-definition digital cameras. Campbell (herself a trained dancer) performs a spectacular Pas De Deux on an outdoor stage, as an approaching storm whips up leaves around her and her partner, while David Lynch fans will love the mesmerising sequence in which a lone dancer cavorts on a swing to the haunting sounds of Julee Cruise. The film climaxes with a performance of a bizarre futuristic piece called The Blue Snake – actually a real ballet that Robert Desrosiers choreographed in the mid-80s, although the crazy, brightly-coloured animal costumes almost suggest that Altman is mocking modern ballet forms.
The Company will certainly not appeal to ballet-haters or those looking for conventional drama. But Altman and Campbell’s willingness to place the artform itself ahead of narrative and character is admirable, and this unusual, sometimes breathtaking film leaves a lasting impression in the mind. Original music by skewed pop-orchestrator Van Dyke Parks.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.
Where this could have gone the Red Shoes route with a story about the star of the show, I liked the way that Campbell's character was just part of the ensemble, it seemed fresher that way. Unfortunately, the silly-looking final ballet sums up all that non-fans fear about the unappetising prospect of watching an evening of modern dance.