With his shimmering "The Company," Robert Altman draws on his mastery of effortless-looking storytelling to celebrate the transcendent glories of the ballet. Altman, whose forte is the ensemble, is an ideal choice for the endeavor, and the essence of ballet is an effect of effortlessness. Ballet is arguably the ultimate example of the art that disguises itself, for the measure of its success depends on how well it hides the grueling work that goes into its constant defiance of gravity.
On the one hand, "The Company" provides a generous glimpse of a season's enthralling offerings of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago; on the other, it is a backstage story revealing what it takes to achieve such a daunting accomplishment. Yet it is also a kind of anti-"Red Shoes" movie.
There is a love story, slight yet ingratiating all the same, to provide a narrative thread, but "The Company" is not called that for nothing: What comes first is the creation of art by a group of dedicated professionals. Along the way there are individual heartaches, both personal and professional, injuries and a lot of hardship, but there is also a steadfast sense that "the company" is greater than the sum of its parts -- and indeed those parts are of necessity replaceable.
The exception to this rule is the Joffrey of Chicago's artistic director, a fictional character named Alberto Antonelli made real by Malcolm McDowell. If ever an actor could supply the fiery temperament of the common notion of a director of a ballet company, it would be McDowell. Yet the actor, Altman and writer Barbara Turner defy cliches. Of course Antonelli has a strong personality and ego; he couldn't succeed without them. But what comes through uppermost are not the occasional flashes of temperament but the sense of a man both with an eye on every detail and the ability to keep the larger picture in focus.
Antonelli is tough, demanding and critical -- and theatrical, to be sure -- but also supportive and quick to applaud when it is deserved. He is as capable of compassion as he is in keeping an eye on the bottom line, essential in a performance art that is so costly, so financially unrewarding for its practitioners and so dependent on patronage. McDowell's Antonelli allows us to come away in awe of the vision, courage and rock-solid self-confidence a ballet company artistic director must possess to prevail and endure.
Antonelli has high hopes for the young and exquisite Ry (Neve Campbell, who also collaborated with Turner on the story that is the basis for Turner's script). In the course of the film, Ry meets and falls in love with Josh (James Franco), chef at a bustling, trendy Chicago restaurant. Both are hard-working and, although their schedules don't mesh as they had hoped, they don't let their romance turn into a trite love versus career hassle. Campbell, once a student at Canada's National School of Ballet, is quite convincing on stage, especially when dancing with Domingo Rubio in a romantic pas de deux, choreographer Lar Lubovitch's "My Funny Valentine." The song itself becomes a theme for Ry and Josh's romance -- and it is heard in four versions, performed by Elvis Costello, Lee Wiley, Chet Baker and the Kronos Quartet.
Along with the rich Joffrey repertoire, "The Company' shows a ballet in the making, with choreographer Robert Desrosiers re-creating his "Blue Snake" for the Joffrey. In its formative stages, it seems amusingly like a fire-breathing monster number appropriate for something like the Maria Montez camp classic "Cobra Woman." Yet as it is performed, it emerges as an enchanting fairy tale fantasy; what might have been kitsch turns out to be art.
Cinematographer Andrew Dunn has been able to bring a seamless fluidity to "The Company," shot in rich-looking high-definition video. Music has always been a major component in Altman films, and here Van Dyke Parks' score is as evocative and varied as the ballets themselves.
"The Company" makes the world of ballet, seen by so many as rarefied, accessible and exciting, a rigorous art that yields breathtaking results.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language
Times guidelines: Appropriate for teens
Malcolm McDowell...Alberto Antonelli
A Sony Pictures Classics presentation of a Killer Films-Capitol Films production. Director Robert Altman. Producers Joshua Astrachan, David Levy. Executive producers S.R.O. Entertainment AG, Stefan Jonas, Jonas McCord. Screenplay by Barbara Turner; based on a story by Campbell and Turner. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Music Van Dyke Parks. Art directors Gary Baugh, Craig Jackson. Set decorator Karen Bruck. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
At selected theaters.