The Company Review
With The Company, Robert Altman has once again taken a specialised environment, placed it under the microscope, prodded it and dissected it carefully in an attempt to deconstructed every facet of its existence. What Altman did for the British pre-war ruling classes in Gosford Park he does for ballet dancers here. From a highly focused insight the director has sought to convey associations relevant to the world at large, as if the magnifying glass was looking in on a detailed cross-section of the way in which people behave. Picking away at the scab of human nature in such a way has preoccupied Altman for the majority of his career.
Shot like a documentary, The Company latches on most closely to Ry (Neve Campbell, who also wrote the “story” and produces the film) a young, aspiring dancer in the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet ensemble. She acts, initially, as the way into this hermetically sealed world as she works towards her first solo performance, whilst trying to balance all the extraneous facets of a second job and, right at the end of the queue, a social life. However, Ry’s tale becomes little more than a side story, as Altman’s camera is constantly willing to roam through the rehearsal rooms and meeting rooms, drawn to the minor squabbles and copious “creative differences” that exist throughout the entire company. Dictating the company creatively, and in the process causing much of the anxiety, is the suitably theatrical Mr Antonelli (or “Mr A”) played wonderfully by Malcolm MacDowell. His capricious presence around the place ruffles up all the existing tensions still further. Part teacher, part hate figure he does a pretty risible job of steering the artistic direction of the performers. From the top down and up again, we bare witness to the hardships of trying to break into the spotlight and the difficulty of maintaining a place at the very top. The fragile nature of the ballet dancer’s trade is brought into excruciating focus when the company’s most prized ballerina snaps her Achilles tendon in rehearsal. The sound of such a serious injury (which will make the entire audience wince) marks an undignified fall from grace.
The film is at it’s best when it is gauging away at the social layers and the hierarchy. The quickened ebb and flow of such a highly charged environment with all its successes and jealousies contrasts the conflicts of rehearsals with the polished, unified finish of the performances. The hard, and often frustrating, labour that goes on behind the scenes works towards set pieces that appear to glide along effortlessly. The film allows screen time for a number of different dance pieces to be played out in their entirety, much like a musical. The narrative, and I use the term loosely, that exists in the film grinds to a complete halt to display the fruits of the dancers’ collective labour. These sequences are designed to place the viewer as a part of the live audience, but they also represent a missed opportunity by Altman to inject something purely cinematic, with the addition of some bravura camerawork, into a theatrical format, as Michael Powell did in The Red Shoes. Clearly Altman’s emphasis is on realism, but it just makes for large chunks of dullness, and as a viewer I found myself looking forward to the end of the dance routines so that the bitchiness could start up again.
The film builds towards a customarily dark and satirical climax, as Altman interjects the art and commerce debate into proceedings. The over-elaborate pantomime, complete with fire breathing dragon, that is the final performance is a hilarious example of selling out. As is often the case with Altman, he spends time, and good will, constructing an insight into a world only to undermine it in the end. Depending on your point of view, this ultimately brutal assessment of the reality of artistic endeavour keeping its financial head above water is either mildly cynical or totally disregarding of the commitment the dancers put in. I suspect those of you with a genuine interest in Ballet will think the latter, but whichever way it is perceived it makes for a marked talking point in the absence of any proper resolution.
The Company ultimately begs the question; why not make an actual documentary about The Joffrey Ballet? The fictional elements in the film are so loosely assembled, plot and characterisation are so slight, especially in light of the use of real-life dancers and fully articulated performances, that The Company falls somewhere in between real-life and fiction in a wholly unsatisfying way. The boundaries have been blurred for no specific reason and with no positive effect. What is left is an unengaging drama and unrevealing documentary with some humorous moments of backbiting and elaborately staged performances.
The Company may have appeal for fans of ballet, as a complete novice in this area I am in no position to judge the film on the technical and artistic proficiency of the dancers, but as a film it displays only a slight glimmer of interest for fans of this great director’s output. A movie microcosm that appeals only to the minority.
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