Ry (Neve Campbell) is one of the lead dancers at the Joffrey ballet company of Chicago, a modern dance ensemble run by the English sounding Italian head of the studio, Alberto Anonelli, or Mr A (Malcolm McDowell). Her life is a mixture o dance discipline and a second job as a cocktail waitress. When she meets sous chef Josh (James Franco), she finds love – but dance is still her priority. The company goes through hell – both professional and personal – while working on their next production, Blue Snake, a challenging work by a French Canadian choreographer.
Review by Louise Keller:
Unlike other dance films like Centre Stage, Fame and A Chorus Line, Robert Altman’s The Company is different in that there is no central storyline that acts as the pivot. The pivot and central focus is entirely on the world of a ballet company, as its members rehearse, perform and lead their everyday lives. It’s also a very different kind of film for Altman, who at the ripe age of 79 is not too old to embrace change. Actress Neve Campbell, who studied dance since the age of six, and is an accomplished dancer, had long been toying with the idea of portraying this unique world in an honest way. Screenwriter Barbara Turner (Georgia, Pollock), like Altman, may not have known much about the world of dance at the start, but soon was caught up in the quest to capture the essence of what it is like to be a dancer.
It’s a bit like being a fly-on-the wall, as the slim, taut and ultra fit dancers do their stretches, plies and jetees in the rehearsal room, before heading for the dressing rooms, where partially naked bodies are unselfconsciously changing. There’s the dictator-like artistic director (Malcolm McDowell, imposing) who calls everyone ‘baby’: beware the company member who contradicts or displeases him. We are there for the meetings and the briefings; we hear the choreographer describing his latest vision, and there are the actual performances, when everything that has been worked for is realised, or not. But it’s not just about performance. We get a glimpse of their private lives, catch them in their part-time jobs, witness their disappointments, injuries and successes. The constant pain of those tortured, deformed feet that are perpetually subjected to impossible feats on points.
Campbell is warm and engaging as Ry, the dancer starting to get some prominent roles. She has a lovely presence and her dancing skills are impressive. James Franco, (James Dean, Never Been Kissed) is appealing as the sous-chef romancing Ry, but it is clearly acknowledged, that the film’s real star is the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, whose modern dance sequences are both striking and unforgettable.
The Company will not please everyone, as much of the film’s 111 minute running time is taken up with lengthy performance sequences. Altman leads us swiftly from the wings to the raucous mood of the Christmas roast, where the dancers send up not only their artistic director and choreographer, but the routines themselves that we have become familiar with.
Dance highlights include an outdoor performance in the middle of an electrical storm; to the haunting melody of My Funny Valentine (on piano and double bass), we watch Campbell’s and partner’s expressive dance through a sea of umbrellas. The musical theme is repeated four times (with different arrangements) through the film – to great effect. The spectacle of the Blue Snake ballet as the film’s finale is a spectacle indeed, with its inventive choreography and eye-boggling costumes. Dancers in zebra costumes, flowing skirts, skin-tight apparel, bright yellows, purples and greens, and even tasselled crimson numbers that look as thought they might have come from the world of Monsters Inc. The Company keeps us fascinated until the final curtain call. Let’s hope Maestro Altman can take many more curtain calls.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Robert Altman is a king among filmmaker princes for his ability to rule over a disparate group of cinematic citizens and bring them into focus for us as a tribe – somehow dysfunctional while also being related. Or at least interconnected. What a wonderful opportunity, then, to explore the world of dancers, where each character is physically linked to the others, each is in the pursuit of excellence, and in the milieu of physical art, meets tribalism; where pain and love, dreams and the ocean of creative challenge collide. Still, being more like a montage documentary without any dramatic through-lines, it’s not exactly obvious Altman stuff - it took him a minute to respond, but then he felt he should just jump off the ledge. In the end, it plays like a docu-drama, and that’s not a bad thing.
The Company is really Neve Campbell’s dream project (she is one of the producers and was a driving force behind the project). A dancer from an early age, she jettisoned the jetee for the joys of studio pictures like Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3 (among others), but here she oozes satisfied dancer after extraordinary efforts to reclaim the discipline.
The film is a tribute to dance, using Altman’s fragmentist style, but a powerful one, and while it admires the world of dance, it’s greatest strength is its honesty in portraying it as a painful and troubled world, like any other. The Joffrey Company is at once a specific and a universal example of a company of dancers whose lives are just as problematic as ours; but for a brief, shining moment on stage, they are able to soar above it all, defying the laws of gravity and this shitty world.
Superb cinematography – using high definition video – and stunning choreography combine to make even the rehearsals fascinating. The opening sequence under the titles is a major highlight, both in terms of cinema and dance. The film won’t appeal to mass audiences, but neither does modern dance. It does have great appeal, though, to anyone who has ever worked in or near the world of dance in any category, or whose palate is open to cinematic adventure with Robert Altman as the tour guide.
As for the finale, the modern ballet titled Blue Snake, you can see it either as a parody of modern dance or a work of genius. But it aint boring.
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COMPANY, THE (PG)
CAST: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago
PRODUCER: Robert Altman, Joshua Astrachan, Neve Campbell, Pamela Koffler, David Levy, David Ley, Christine Vachon
DIRECTOR: Robert Altman
SCRIPT: Barbara Turner (story by Neve Campbell, Barbara Turner)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Andrew Dunn
EDITOR: Geraldine Peroni
MUSIC: Van Dyke Parks
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Gary Baugh
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 13, 2004
VIDEO RELEASE: December 16, 2004