Hold me closer, tiny dancer: Neve Campbell tries
to shine for the Joffrey Ballet in Robert Altman¹s
latest, The Company.
"Though [Eyes Without a Face] horrifies, (director Georges) Franju was right to resist its classification as a horror film," Raymond Durgnat wrote of the French director and his 1959 film, which screens Tuesday at the Prytania courtesy the New Orleans Film Festival. "'It's an anguish film,'" Durgnat quotes Franju as saying. "'It's a quieter mood than horror, something more subjacent, more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in doses.'"
It's also horror done in subtle, sublime and poetic tones -- yet another example that they don't make 'em like they used to. But for perspective's sake, note that Eyes Without a Face was met with a wave of shock and disgust and a share of critical backlash upon its release. (Considering that most of it came from the prudish Brits, this should be taken as a compliment.) But considering that the best horror films come at their most psychological, their most morally compromising, Eyes Without a Face -- here shown in a restored 35mm print -- certainly deserves a second look (pun intended).
Franju explores themes of morality, the hubris of science in particular, but also of slavery and slavishness as well, in this story of a "mad scientist" who in order to replace his daughter's mangled face is willing to sacrifice victims' live flesh -- and lives. There is a nuance required to developing the rhythm and tempo preceding horrific moments -- the dread and anxiety felt in The Blair Witch Project is much worse than actually being scared -- and Franju has that mastery here. Even flat declarations can be frightening: When Pierre Brasseur's doctor dead-pans, "I've done so much wrong to perform this miracle" without the least bit of irony, the result is downright chilling.
There are almost too many highlights to mention here, so here's a short list: Edith Scob's zombie-meets-angel performance as the daughter Christiane; Maurice Jarre's haunting score that features a carnivalesque passage at the mood-setting introduction; and Eugen Schufftan's unnerving cinematography.
Eyes Without a Face continues an impressive series of screenings by the New Orleans Film Festival, which adds a fourth screening of the documentary Rivers and Tides this Wednesday -- bumped from its Tuesday perch to accommodate Eyes.
Robert Altman's horror stories have been more of the ensemble variety, as he piles characters upon each other and watches as they tear each other apart. But look a little closer at 2001's Gosford Park -- easily one of his better recent works -- and you detect an artist who seems a little tired of irony in his old age but no less artistic. Gosford Park, with its nods to Renoir's The Rules of the Game, felt like one of Altman's more sincere works.
This mellowing seems to continue with the curious The Company, an almost documentary-style look at Chicago's Joffrey Ballet (once housed in New York City). For all its beauty, there remains a question of what kind of artistry Altman is striving for here -- the artistry of artists, perhaps? It's hard to fathom that Altman would intentionally make a film that is so bereft of narrative structure, so tenuous in its spilling of details, so reticent in its dialogue, that he wasn't trying to convey some hidden meaning somewhere.
Hell, maybe he just wanted to do Neve Campbell a "solid." It was Campbell -- she of Party of Five and Scream fame, and of one helluva button nose -- who gets "story" credit along with Barbara Turner (who wrote the script). Campbell, a former dancer, had been shopping this project around for years, and fortunately for us, this is no star vehicle.
What it is is a fairly sanitized look at the life of a dance company, with subtle details seeping into the story but an amazing number of omissions. There are only vague references to some of the most serious issues that affect dance companies: the shilling for corporate sponsorship, homosexuality, sexual politics, AIDS, weight loss. And for whatever reason, Altman -- one of the most daring directors of his generation -- plays it remarkably safe, giving most of these issues barely a nod. Certainly he portrays the company's director, Malcolm McDowell (as an Italian-American?), as a fairly egotistical chap who juggles the politics of his job sometimes well, sometimes not so much. He talks out of both sides of his mouth, referring to even his veteran dancers as "babies" and often contradicting himself, avoiding conflict like any head of state.
Campbell is fine here while given very little to do: dance, question her future, furrow her brow on occasion, and make goo-goo eyes at love interest/line cook James Franco. The dance sequences are rightfully the star here, shot with a majestic simplicity by Altman. And maybe that's the point: the show is the thing.