Judge P.S. Colbert wishes they all could be California girls. And Parisian girls. And Tijuana girls.
"I think you're suffering from reactive depression. It's a common disorder triggered by grief."
Like it or not, one has to give Americano props for managing to remain a small-scale and intimate film despite spanning three countries, speaking in three different languages, and featuring an international cast headed by a trio of cinematic legacies.
Writer-Producer-Director Mathieu Demy (the son of iconic French film directors Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda) stars as Martin Cooper, a late thirtyish Parisian real estate agent whose demeanor personifies listlessness—never more so than while making love to his girlfriend Claire (Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of actors Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve).
Phone calls that come either too early or too late in the day tend to herald bad news, and the one that wakes Martin informs him of his mother Emilie's death in Los Angeles. Despite any real desire to do so, Martin agrees to fly over and settle affairs, including selling her condominium; a place he actually shared with her for a few of his preteen years before being shipped back to France and his father's care.
Arriving in L.A., Martin is boisterously greeted by Linda (Geraldine Chaplin, eldest daughter of Charlie Chaplin), one of his mother's dearest friends, whose hyperemotional, incessant chattiness clashes terribly with Martin's jetlagged disaffection. Though his obvious intention is to empty out and sell off the condo in order to make as hasty a getaway as possible, Martin discovers that his mother's wish was to quit claim ownership of the place to Lola, a girl of Martin's age that lived a few doors down. She's apparently once a close friend of his, but Martin claims to have almost no childhood memories.
The memories that remain are cleverly supplied from clips of Documenteur, a Varda short feature from 1981, featuring then preteen Mathieu Demy as a French émigré trying to adjust to a new life in L.A. with his single mother (Sabine Mamou). Whether or not Demy actually uses the same location for his present-day shoot, he's created the illusion by expertly blending his footage to match his mother's, a novel and ingenious narrative stroke.
Martin's efforts to fulfill his mother's request send him speeding off to Tijuana, where Lola (Salma Hayek, Frida) dances in a seedy strip club called the Americano. His assumption that he'll be able to cruise in, transact his business, and turn around for home in a few moments' time turns out to be a gross miscalculation on Martin's part. Lola's introduction (to him and the rest of the Americano audience, but most importantly to the film itself) is pure screen magic that must be seen to be believed. Suffice it to say that this sequence gives Hayek—one of the sexiest women in cinematic history—a perfect opportunity to prove that her artistic value is certainly more than skin-deep.
Like a diamond in the rough, Americano hides a bit of treasure. The cast is game, the look and sound of the film perfectly suiting a good little story that very cleverly allows Demy to pay loving homage to his parents (Lola also happens to be the name of the title character in his father's breakthrough film) while establishing himself as a filmmaker to watch out for in future. Unfortunately, the progress of this good little story (and indeed, the forward motion of the film itself) has been considerably damaged by the padding that stretches it into feature length at a mere 106 minutes.
Had he chosen to linger on Hayek, Mastroianni, Chaplin, or the scenery of the three cities represented, this problem might not exist, but instead, Demy chose to focus on himself—OK, Martin, then. The problem is, Martin holds within him a great deal of unresolved anger, longing, love, and pain, but his almost complete inability to express himself causes him to internalize nearly all of it. How interesting do you think it is to watch a film character internalize, uninterrupted for considerable chunks of time?
Americano offers an answer to that question, and it ain't pretty! Given the grand tradition of masterful short film makers from his homeland, including Jean Vigo (Taris), Albert Lamorisse (The Red Balloon), and Chris Marker (La jetee), why would Demy feel such pressure to hyper-inflate his filmmaking debut, turning a neat little cinematic novella into a bloated big-screen saga, anyways?
Kudos to MPI for a first-rate job, delivering an (intentionally) grainy 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The reasons for the (intentionally) grainy presentation are logically explained by Demy in a short but interesting interview about the film's making—the set's only bonus feature, not counting the theatrical trailer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track works magnificently, and befitting a story told in three different countries with three different languages, subtitles are available.
Based on the merits of Americano, I believe that if he continues as a filmmaker, Mathieu Demy will indeed turn out to be a valuable contributor with a unique, artful voice—providing he gets himself a pair of scissors and learns to use them judiciously.
Not guilty, but not for the impatient, either!
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