Robert Altman’s beautiful The Company was conceived as a vanity project “by” (not necessarily “for”) Neve Campbell, who trained with the National Ballet School of Canada for several years before breaking out in Hollywood. The film’s fly-on-the-wall narrative observes life inside the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, where dancers and their instructors prepare to mount an elaborate super-production called the “Blue Snake” (essentially a self-devouring version of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King). It’s unlikely that the film will appeal to the same crowds that swooned for Altman’s equally brilliant but more “plot-driven” Gosford Park, or those bamboozled by the soulless razzle-dazzle of last year’s Chicago—which is a shame considering how this elegant movement in still life unravels as a profound metaphor for both the filmmaking process and life itself.
Like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, The Company allows Altman to vicariously discuss the way he makes films. Malcolm McDowell’s crusty Alberto Antonelli is in many ways the director’s doppelganger. As head of the ballet company, Alberto knows exactly what he wants to see but doesn’t necessarily get in the way of the creative process—there’s certainly room for improvisation as long as the movement on stage (and screen) feels and looks organic. Which is why the film’s opening sequence is so ravishing and embodies the purity of Altman’s aesthetic vision. Over the film’s credits, a voice asks the spectator to shut off his or her phone. (If cellphone-packers reach for their pockets, the film has already done its job.) Altman then relishes a simple but thoroughly modern dance piece untainted by noise or montage.
When the choreographer of the “Blue Snake” explains the elaborate nature of the production, Alberto states, “You don’t understand the financial situation.” Altman, like Alberto, is money-conscious, and it’s a testament to his powers as a filmmaker that he can make a film as profound as The Company on a shoestring budget. During a rehearsal of one performance piece, someone makes a reference to “the footwork being too fast.” Every dance number in Chicago is obtrusively edited in order to disguise the limitations of the film’s actors as dancers. Altman worked with true professionals for The Company, and he observes their every movement from a fascinated distance. He reveres movement in the same way Chicago uses it as a bludgeoning device.
Early in the film, Altman observes the older Harriet (Barbara Robertson) practicing by herself inside a rehearsal studio. Altman’s glorious long shot of the white, untainted room situates Robertson to the right side of the frame. As soon as a group of students enter the room, the woman leaves through a side door. Altman’s profound understanding of widescreen evokes the woman’s freedom, and the use of close-up emphasizes her sudden agitation. For the rest of the film, she’s pushed out of rooms or obscured by faces and bodies while standing in the background plane of the film’s frame. There’s an overwhelming sense here that the “new” is pushing aside the “old.” (Parallel this infringement with the way Paul Thomas Anderson has tried to replace Altman in recent years.)
The Company is about the creative process, but it’s also about weathering it. Injury is a recurring metaphor in the film, and the way characters respond to pain says a lot about them as people. A character tears her Achilles’ tendon not long after her wedding. Altman shoots the scene from above, summoning the girl’s obvious devastation right before she yells for someone to call her husband. When Ry (Campbell) injures herself during the final performance of “Blue Snake,” the reaction (personally and aesthetically) is completely different. Altman’s matter-of-fact observation complements Ry’s refusal to let her professional disappointment bleed into her personal life. If the show can’t go on, then love can.
The Company is a film of many erotic displacements; indeed, love is its own seductive dance. Instead of stressing her injury, Ry wallows in the comfort of her girlish love for the handsome cook played by James Franco. I can’t think of a more erotic sequence in recent movie history than the sight of Franco peeking out at Campbell from within a phone booth inside a seedy-looking bar. Altman ravishingly embodies their sexual tension in a glass divider, billiard balls nailing their sockets, and a series of stolen glances. The audience never sees them making love. Instead, Altman radically cuts to a performance piece, allowing a group of dancers scantily clad in red outfits to consummate their love.
“What’s good for you is good for the company,” says Alberto at one point. (Imagine the implications of the reverse: “What’s good for the company is good for you.”) Altman recognizes an element of dance in everything, and his love for movement makes for a fascinating empowerment ritual. Ry is a bourgeoning diva and Josh (Franco) is a cook. If there’s a class struggle being set up here, it’s one that Altman is quick to dismantle. When Josh makes an omelette for Ry, Altman lingers as much on Franco’s obliques as he does on the tomatoes he seductively slices into. Just as dance is her performance, food is his. It’s a pantomime that speaks for his love for her, and its one that can also be read just in their hand gestures to each other. It’s a shame that people may not connect with The Company. Unlike most films, Altman’s latest masterpiece is a picture worth a thousand movements.