Director/Coscreenwriter: Mathieu Amalric
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Mathieu Amalric is best known outside of France for starring in the lauded and successful adaptation of journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That meditative and mournful film dealt in part with the importance of family connections, a theme that seems to appeal to Amalric. He’s taken it up again by reviving the backstage drama through a performance form that is itself a revival of a moribund art—burlesque. The result is an ambling, entertaining, nostalgic film with a lot of charm.
Amalric stars as Joachim Zand, a former French TV producer and personality who has returned from an extended stay in the United States with a troupe of New Burlesque artists. He has planned a tour of the port cities of France from Le Havre to Toulouse, avoiding Paris until he has a confirmed booking—and avoiding telling his troupe why—because the many enemies he made there makes it impossible for him to book a venue for the show. What plot exists revolves around the loss of the Paris venue he thought he had, prompting Joachim to launch into a tour-de-force tirade by cellphone on their train and forcing him to go to Paris to grovel before his former producing partner François (Damien Odoul) and impresario Chapuis (Pierre Grimblat) to secure another theatre; he returns only with a black eye and his two sons (Simon and Joseph Roth), foisted on him by his ex-wife for a short visit.
On Tour is much more interested in personality than plot, a point made many times in many different ways through the interactions of the cast and New Burlesque itself. The dancers, all real burlesque stars (including the phenomenally inventive winner of the 2006 Miss Exotic World Pageant Julie Atlas Muz), interviewed in the movie by a French journalist, define New Burlesque as by women for women. They’re not exactly speaking about the audience, though the first show’s crowd is shown to be largely made up of women. They consider New Burlesque to be about their self-expression, their definition of themselves sexually and creatively, thereby providing a model for all women.
This is a concept that Joachim has a hard time settling into. During one sequence in which Joachim criticizes Julie as unsexy for wrapping herself up in a body-length rope and gyrating to “undress” (he says in French, “You look like an earthworm”), she says it’s their show—he’s just the tour manager. His reduction in status eats at him, and he tries to be a hotshot tour manager by booking them into hotels they really can’t afford, and getting the dancers flowers and champagne. Meanwhile, he drives a budget rental car and grabs free matches and candy by the handful from dishes at all the hotel reception desks.
Mimi Le Meaux (Miranda Colclasure), a large, heavily made-up bleach-blonde who imitates Sally Rand with her feather fan routine, is more or less the female lead. She seems closest to Joachim, trying to find out his secrets, accusing him of using the dancers to get back into the limelight in France, and successfully getting under his skin. “I could love you if you had talent,” he says to her, earning him a slap and amply demonstrating why everyone he knew before loathes him.
Yet, in the true style of show people, Joachim, Mimi, and the rest of the dancers are rather lonely, and this film is a pretty good look at how unglamorous life on the road can be. Traveling to small towns where there is nothing to see and do, the dancers break the boredom by singing in the lobby (in a great running gag, Joachim asks one hotel clerk after another to turn off the Muzak or TV in the lobby, a request that seems beyond their comprehension) or crashing a Japanese wedding that later erupts into a brawl. Mimi picks up a software programmer at the hotel bar, a great scene where she pretends to comprehend his technical explanations in French of what he does, and takes him into a bathroom stall for sex while a bunch of little Japanese girls kept in the bathroom to avoid the brawl listen and wonder if the pair has turned into wild animals.
I was absolutely enthralled by the burlesque numbers, which make up about half the film. Mimi’s number may be corny, but her stage presence is awesome. A huge dancer named Dirty Martini does a routine sending up the United States, flashing a star-striped banner and then stripping down to a g-string and pasties and stuffing money into her mouth. Julie was by far my favorite dancer, with her mixture of bawdy and artistic stripteases. In one, she inflates a see-through balloon and slowly allows it to envelope her until she is standing entirely inside it. In another, she wears a glove that looks like a severed arm, and makes it appear that her own hand is the disembodied hand that is feeling her up.
The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, whether shot with careful set-ups or using handhelds for a more verite look. There are four credited screenwriters, perhaps because the film seems so improvised, even random. Yet, the easy movement of the dancers between English and French must have been scripted to some extent, and I’ve got to believe that the film was constructed similarly to the way John Cassavetes made his movies. It can be confusing if you care about plot and logical progression, but it’s quite a delight of found moments and everyday intimacy.
The film’s final setting is an homage to burlesque. Mimi and Joachim, separated from the rest of the troupe, find an abandoned hotel on the shore. They call the troupe, who board a boat and motor over. Joachim fires up the sound system and puts in a tape of music he likes, and the troupe romps around the faded glory of what must once have been a luxury seaside resort. It’s a lovely metaphor for a film that offers a fresh take on a faded movie genre. l
On Tour had a one-time-only screening. Look for it in limited release in your area.
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