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The Company (Robert Altman, 2003)


    The uncontestable highlight of Robert Altman’s superlative ballet film The Company is an enchanting pas de deux that quickly becomes something of a rain dance when the stormy skies above begin to threaten the performance in an outside amphitheater. It’s a beautiful moment that becomes transcendent, and then continues to expand as the director shows us the crowd’s reaction and the reaction of the artistic director, who frantically wonders whether the floor is dry and the dancers are at risk. It’s one of Altman’s finest scenes, but it almost seems simplistic, at least until you realize no one else would stage the scene in such an attentive and expansive way. Though none of the other dance numbers quite reach that height, they are all are successful. From the opening dance with its parade of ribbons to the closing fairy tale ballet, each is shot and edited to present the body as an expressive object. They are only hampered at all by the sad choice to shoot the film on DV. This decision results in a regrettable smoky look that’s probably not intended. Chicago, though a far less impressive example of filmmaking, had a better use of black spaces during its musical numbers, since it was able to actually show a truly black space by virtue of it being shot on film. When Altman tries for the same effect, it fails somewhat because the backdrop is too bright. Otherwise, whenever the director shoots, he scores.


    One of the most surprising things about The Company, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given its director’s body of work, is that it essentially eschews the backstage drama’s central cliché and resists becoming the story of a prima donna’s rise to fame. As the title suggests, the company as a whole is the subject here, and while Neve Campbell’s future star Ry has a central role, she hardly dominates the film. Just as interesting, for example, is 43-year-old dancer Deborah, who wears her time with the company like a badge of honor. The drama comes not from any individual’s travails, but from the day-in, day-out problems that afflict the company as a whole. With the distance that Altman’s encompassing point of view provides, a snapped Achilles tendon becomes a small personal disaster, but one that the company expeditiously copes with. It intelligently makes us understand the work involved in the dancer’s quest in “becoming the movement”, but never expects us to fawn over these people for doing their job. We see the company alternatively, and sometimes simultaneously, as a critical and supportive environment, where tough love is dispensed so frequently that no one can forget the reality of the situation. It makes sense though, since Altman takes time to point out the economic decisions that influence the troupe’s output (as well as the financial instability of the dancers themselves), making it clear that reality is always threatening to rear its head and interrupt the creative process.


    It’s difficult not to read a film that so strongly stresses the amount of work that goes into the presentation of the seemingly effortless as a summation of Altman’s body of work, especially when the collection of an ensemble of talent seems so key to making the magic happen. Fortunately, the ensemble that Altman has assembled for The Company can stand alongside that in any of his other films. Malcolm McDowell’s marvelously hammed up performance as the troupe’s artistic director, perhaps appropriately lords over the other actors whenever he’s on screen. Even when he says, “I’m not here,” to a group of rehearsing dancers, he clearly is felt as a presence, and before long, begins barking orders. Star and producer Neve Campbell holds her own among a cast comprised partially of professional dancers. Something of a privileged outsider among her peers, her character expresses herself as much on the stage as through a lovely romance, which develops mostly through non-verbal expression. As an instrumental force in getting this film made, she gives us a too-rare example of the star-driven Hollywood system creating a project driven by artistry instead of ego. It’s one of the least vain vanity projects I can recall, since it allows many of the choicest moments to reside in other actors’ hands. Particularly of note is Marilyn Dodds Frank as her crass, heavy-drinking mom. She’s a wonderfully conceived character, and someone you could only expect to find in an Altman film. The Company is the director’s best work in a decade.




Jeremy Heilman