To look at French actor Mathieu Demy is to see a synthesis of his parents, directors Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. The same could be said of his directorial debut, “Americano,” which blends his mother’s unpretentious almost-verite style with a certain forlorn romanticism likely inherited from his father. Working on both sides of the camera, Demy plays a Parisian real estate agent who returns to Los Angeles after his mom’s death to sort out her affairs. Among the loose ends are, eventually, a Mexican stripper played by Salma Hayek, whose sultry presence is the pic’s best shot at American distribution.
With the exception of the incredibly sexy striptease that introduces Hayek’s character rather late in the story, “Americano” avoids the kind of sensationalism that would make it an obvious fest or arthouse item. Shot on grainy Super 16 in neighborhoods that haven’t changed in decades, Demy’s film echoes an earlier era, like a bottle sent out to sea in the ’70s that’s only just now washing ashore.
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A dual citizen, Martin (Demy) spent his first years in the States, but moved back to France after his mother (Sabine Mamou, seen only in flashback) had a nervous breakdown. Now in his late 30s, Martin still bears the scars of that separation, feeling unloved and abandoned by his mom, which in turn creates commitment issues in his relationship with g.f. Claire (Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of Jacques Demy muse Catherine Deneuve).
A restless soul in a movie haunted by ghosts of many kinds, Martin reluctantly dusts off his American passport and returns to the land of his childhood to collect his mom’s remains and sell her apartment. He’s greeted at the airport by Linda (Geraldine Chaplin), an old family friend whose stories suggest Martin has the wrong idea about his mother. As they drive the California streets, the memories come flooding back, illustrated by clips from real mom Varda’s 1981 “Documenteur,” an intimate, hourlong mother-son fable featuring an 8-year-old Demy.
Though “Americano” feels almost novelistic in its rambling style and overall preoccupation with memory, the existence of this earlier film gives Demy a uniquely cinematic tool for expressing sentiments difficult to put into words. Shooting in the same Venice Beach apartment Varda did, the helmer creates a continuity between these two fictions, extending even to the score (as Gregoire Hetzel expands the music Georges Delerue wrote 30 years earlier).
Confronted with his mother’s possessions, Martin’s first impulse is to throw everything away, but an old photo of the two of them posing with a Mexican girl named Lola (evoking the woman of Jacques Demy’s film of the same name) changes his plans. Martin steals Linda’s red Mustang convertible and drives to Tijuana, where he locates a dancer by that name working in a sleazy south-of-the-border sex club. Demy could have called her anything, but by choosing Lola, he evokes that great symbol of impossible-to-forget desire, embodied by Anouk Aimee in his father’s film “Lola” and its lesser-known, L.A.-set sequel, “Model Shop” (a virtual prototype for “Americano”).
In Hayek’s hands, the character embodies the strength Martin lacks: She wears her scars on the outside, refusing to live in the past, while he may as well be bleeding to death internally by refusing to let old grudges go.
Though Demy’s approach breaks no new ground, directorially speaking, Martin’s personal journey finds a fresh angle on a universal piece of wisdom. Every mother’s son believes he’s the star of his own life; “Americano” captures that humbling moment where one realizes perhaps he has only been a bit player in his parents’ story, not the star, as initially believed.