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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
dir Robert Altman
scr Barbara Turner
with Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, Lar Lubovitch, Robert Desrosiers, Davis C Robertson, Domingo Rubio, Maia Wilkins, Deborah Dawn, David Gombert, Barbara Robertson, William Dick
release US 25.Dec.03; UK 7.May.04
And stretch: Campbell (right) rehearses with the company...
Altman takes such an understated approach here that it feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. While this muted tone may annoy some filmgoers, it's also a fresh and fascinating glimpse into the life of a ballet company. At the film's centre is Ry (Campbell), a dancer on the verge of stardom at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. She earns enough to live in a trendy studio flat apart from the crowded flophouse where the more lowly dancers bunk. She also quietly goes about her craft, avoiding the political posturing around the smarmy artistic director (McDowell), and after learning her lesson seeks love from a guy (Franco) who has nothing to do with dance at all! The film traces Ry's highs and lows through two major performances (choreographed by Lubovitch and Desrosiers), from mundane day-to-day business to extraordinary experiences on stage.
Without seeming to try at all, Altman captures the intricate interrelationships between the staff and dancers. This feels like improv, and yet it's too finely attuned to be an accident--beautifully shot and edited, with scenes that are telling and vital without ever being pushy. There are only a handful of actors amid the actual company, and Campbell (who also produced the film and came up with the idea) fits in seamlessly, drawing on her dancing experience and making Ry a focussed loner who still has the ability to enjoy life on her own terms. McDowell gets the far showier role as the broad, funny, meddling director.
The behind-the-scenes stuff touches on the creative rehearsal process, casting, injuries, politics and romantic entanglements, but in an everyday way that never gets cinematically manipulative. This is punctuated by performances that inventively blend stage and screen imagery. An early sequence in which Campbell and Rubio perform a tender pas de deux in the park while a storm brews around them is very effective (if a little contrived), as is the hilariously over-the-top final performance. The other standout scene is a muscular and passionate solo rehearsal piece by Robertson. There's no real plot here, but there is a progression as we get to know the characters and their lives. It's almost imperceptibly subtle, but like ballet itself it's a remarkable experience if you let it wash over you.
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