Robert Altman takes an elegant, appealingly unemphatic look at the world of ballet in “The Company.” Eliminating the customary elements — the hysteria, imperious company manager, cruel choreographers, prima donnas, furious rivalries and everything-for-art obsessiveness — of pictures from “The Red Shoes” and “The Spectre of the Rose” on down, this film instead chooses an impressionistic, undramatic approach that will be too soft and uneventful for mainstream viewers and may also be faulted by sticklers within ballet circles. But the film casts a gentle spell that should be appreciated by a select portion of the specialized crowd, resulting in modest but sustainable B.O. in discerning markets.
Altman has made numerous films about the creative process and the particular environments that foster its different forms — “Nashville,” “Vincent and Theo,” “The Player” and “Pret a Porter,” for starters. Originated by Neve Campbell as a way to portray the art form she extensively studied before becoming an actress, the story provides the perfect format for one of Altman’s patented ensemble pieces, in which a dozen or more characters could intersect with complimentary and competing agendas.
But subverting expectations as always, Altman forsakes multi-level melodrama (as well as his frequent derisory and satirical tone) to peer into the company as an organism. Script by Barbara Turner (“Pollock,” “Georgia”), from a story by her and Campbell, concentrates on the latter’s character of Ry (short for Ryan), fictionally a rising dancer in the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. But the focus is not a typical psychological probing or detailed delineation of her dreams, struggles and sacrifice.
Rather, Ry serves merely as a small window into the world of dance and what it’s like to be an aspiring ballerina. A fair amount of the action does not involve her, especially scenes devoted to the balancing act performed daily by company director Alberto Antonelli (an excellent Malcolm McDowell) in overseeing the operation’s finances and artistic standards. But attention keeps returning to her, as she trains, performs, works a night job as a nightclub waitress, meets a new guy (James Franco) and generally experiences the vicissitudes of career and life.
Opening credits sequence, depicting an ensemble dance featuring enormous ribbons, is seductively beautiful and provides instant assurance that Altman and his cinematographer Andrew Dunn know how to shoot ballet. Sensitively lensed in widescreen from advantageous angles, often with moving camera, and edited with exceptional grace by Geraldine Peroni, the numerous dance numbers are judiciously presented — long enough to provide a feel for their scope and the dancers’ achievements but short enough to forestall tedium.
And they’re a varied lot. After some well observed rehearsal scenes that lightly sketch the sort of training dancers go through, Ry and her partner Domingo Rubio perform a stirring pas de deux in the Grant Park bandshell as a thunderstorm sets in over the lakefront; the weather creates an eerie feeling that’s ominous and haunting by turns, in the end producing an event that’s magical and probably once-in-a-lifetime. All the same, Ry’s post-performance letdown is so intense that she goes home alone and cries.
During a seasonal break, Ry meets young chef Josh (Franco) in a lovely scene in which Josh admiringly watches her run the table in pool in a neighborhood bar. The warm physical attraction of these two very attractive young people is presented with oblique understatement, with no time wasted on the particulars; the relationship is just something that works for both of them at this moment. (Franco remains very much in James Dean mode here).
In keeping with the subject, words mean little in this picture dominated by movement, and for about 80 minutes, Altman keeps nudging things along nicely despite the lack of conventional narrative momentum. The absence of drama begins to make itself felt, however, around the time of an uneventful company Christmas party, and with the exception of a beautiful number performed on a rope by the striking Emily Patterson, pic’s hold on the viewer diminishes through the final half-hour.
In large measure, this is because the 11-minute production number selected to climax the film, “Blue Snake,” is the least interesting of the lot; the music, by Van Dyke Parks, is undistinguished, and the concept is kitschy. Pic just sort of slides away at the end.
Throughout, ballet life is evoked and indicated rather than deeply mined. Several ballerinas, including Ry, are injured in the course of the story; one young man is dismissed from a number (it’s suggested he takes legal action for “abuse,” a charge that would have been unthinkable in the days of “The Red Shoes”), and others argue with Antonelli. But the risks, setbacks and disagreements are taken in stride as a natural part of the profession, with no undue emphasis put on them.
Common in foreign films, the uninflected, observational style Altman employs here will seem unusual to viewers who exclusively see modern American pictures. Approach is far more preconceived and premeditated than what is generally considered documentary-like, but there’s little telegraphing and hammering home of points, which will come as a relief to a small but appreciative segment of the domestic audience.
Campbell provides an appealing, almost self-effacingly modest center to the action; it’s one of the least affected and starry star turns imaginable. Explicitly playing an Italian-American but letting his English accent in as often as not, McDowell excels as the fair-minded dictator who oversees everything but delegates with aplomb. Others in the cast come and go with naturalistic ease.
Showing just bits of Chicago but very much grounded there, “The Company” looks and sounds terrific, save for the undue repetitions of “My Funny Valentine.”