Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 22, 2011 8:56 am 
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On the road, adrift, in France with American strippers

Big French star Matthieu Amalric's fourth directorial effort is an assured and atmospheric chronicle of a down-on-his luck TV emcee taking a group of American burlesque stars to lesser venues in France. The meandering On Tour/Tournée, with its nods to Robert Altman and Cassavetes' Killing of a Chinese Bookie, uses its hilariously voluptuous, past-their-prime American "New Burlesque" divas as its true mise-en-scene: the dismal French ports like Le Havre, Toulon, and La Rochelle, anonymous hotels, and car and train interiors are as colorless as the dreary elevator music the impresario tries in van to have turned off. As Joachim, the beleaguered, distracted would-be producer, who can't get anybody to lend him a venue in Paris (or any other major French city, for that matter), sporting slick hair and a mustache, Amalric is a nattier, more durable, yet somehow less appealing version of the amiable neurotics he has played for director Arnaud Desplechin.

Because the mix doesn't entirely cohere, it's somewhat a mystery why the French critics have been universally ecstatic about On Tour. Its combination of sleazy urban French venues with the American accents and bodies of the burlesque queens may have woven a more special magic for them. It somehow served as a metaphor for the French fantasy relationship with the US. The French critics were also fascinated by the concept of "New Burlesque," in which the ladies capitalize on the quaintness and charm of their tantalizing art and weave inventive new acts that combine pasties with giant diaphanous balloons and adopt quasi-feminist stances, claiming they're women performing for women. They are Mimi le Meaux (Miranda Colclasure), Kitten on the Keys (Suzanne Ramsey), Dirty Martini (Linda Marraccini), Julie Atlas Muz (Julie Ann Muz), and Evie Lovelle (Angela de Lorenzo). The real live performance moments, which have a touch of Fellini and blend titillation with performance art, are all too brief. Mostly, and less successfully, divas merely play themselves off stage as they wait around, party late at hotels, pack up, or ride the train, and in those scenes they're not particularly interesting. Though Mimi le Meaux emerges as more verbal than the others, and also understands a bit of French -- slightly undercutting the general non-communication between Joachim and the girls -- even Mimi's scenes are merely background.

Half the screen time however, and gradually more and more of the attention, is devoted to Joachim's disheveled personal life, even though he barely has one and we never know quite how to take him. Former associates and ex lovers he approaches in Paris looking for a venue are angry and resentful, alternating between being vicious, passive-aggressive, and remote. A particularly painful love-hate relationship is with his brother François (played by director Damien Odoul). Heavy-handed viciousness comes from a theater owner (TV series creator Pierre Grimblat). A final appeal is to an ex girlfriend, now a cancer patient (Florence Ben Sadoun), a detail that lays it on a bit thick. Joachim's two cute sons (played by Simon and Joseph Roth), whom he takes on the road for a while but then neglects, are quite unimpressed by him. He makes love to the burlesque stars verbally once in a while, sometimes with drippy sentimentality. But he mostly neglects them as well, partly excused by their demand for artistic independence. Whatever the excuse, he is always off dealing with some new problem of his own. He repeatedly phones them on his mobile to explain his absence as they must pack up on their own along with male team member Rocky Roulette (Alexander Craven) and assistant Ulysse (Ulysse Klotz).

In his role as the protagonist Amalric winds up like the girls teasing the audience, offering little moments of charm (such as his flirting banter with a gas station attendant well played by Aurelia Petit) -- and the actor's trademark winsomeness, yet, through the sleazy outward surface, remaining essentially undefined. An essential crisis moment seems missing-- left out, perhaps, to give the burlesque performers the primacy the director insisted on at Cannes when he won the Best Director prize, and brought them all up on stage to accept it with him. Amalric seems throughout this film to accept his accustomed role of dominating the screen. But there needed to be a director to direct the director in his performance as protagonist, as well as a writer (despite four being listed) to define and focus the narrative. Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne adeptly creates an effect that's half feature-half documentary, alternating closeups and wind-angle vérité-style long shots.

Tournée debuted at Cannes in May 2010, winning Amalric the Director's Prize. Apart from critical acclaim and respectable box office in France, the film has been shown at various festivals, with theatrical releases in many countries in Europe and elsewhere. It is also variously released on DVD. The San Francisco International Film Festival (May 2011) may be its last festival showing. Seen and reviewed in connection with the SFIFF.

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