Like a “Seinfeld” episode, Robert Altman’s ballet film “The Company” seems to be about nothing, yet it’s oddly mesmerizing.
The director takes a defiantly plotless look — more so than in his other seemingly plotless films, such as “Pret a Porter” — at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Everything seems to happen so naturally, it’s almost like watching a documentary.
Neve Campbell, the “Scream” queen who danced for many years as a child before becoming an actress, stars as an up-and-coming ballerina — though to say she “stars” wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because she is truly part of the company. Campbell, who also helped produce and write the story, obviously put enormous effort into getting back into dancing shape, but this is no vanity project.
Besides, Altman is more interested in the whole troupe and nothing but the troupe, the minutiae of the dancers’ grueling lives and the glorious fruits of their labor: the ballets themselves, which are universally magnificent.
Unlike ballet films such as “The Turning Point,” with their high drama and diva meltdowns, “The Company” is about lacing up toe shoes, warming up and going through the tedious repetitiveness of rehearsals. Campbell’s character, Ry, gets her big break not through jealous backstage manipulations, but because the dancer who had the role suffered a neck spasm.
Ballet takes center stageBut the best parts of “The Company,” like the best parts of “The Turning Point,” are the performances themselves. Ry’s melancholy pas de deux to “My Funny Valentine,” choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, turns dramatic on an outdoor stage when a thunderstorm breaks out. Also striking is a solo involving a dancer in a long white dress, spinning and swaying on a swing.
Altman, working from a script by Barbara Turner, focuses just as much on the dancers’ inglorious offstage lives. Ry lives in a studio apartment next to the El train, and works nights as a cocktail waitress at a dance club to pay the bills.
She’s dating a chef (James Franco) whom she met rather unceremoniously while playing pool at a bar, and their scenes together mostly consist of sipping red wine on the couch, or mouthing messages and gesturing to each other across a crowded room. Superficially, all this doesn’t sound like much, but it has cumulative authenticity.
Even showier than any role for a dancer is the part of the ballet company’s artistic director, played with great energy and humor by Malcolm McDowell. As Alberto Antonelli, he snaps at his dancers (whom he calls his babies): “You’re all so pretty. You know how I hate pretty.” And he gets just as annoyed when a plate of bagels is in his way on the conference table.
“The Company” won’t appeal to most filmgoers — and it’s not intended to. But those who stick it out until the final bow will find themselves, as Altman obviously did, in great awe and appreciation.