French film personality Mathieu Amalric has found fame appearing on-screen, with a successful career as a renowned character actor to his name. With features as diverse as Munich and Marie Antoinette, Public Enemy #1 and Quantum Of Solace on his resume, the talented thespian has received three César awards (for most promising actor in My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, and best male lead in Kings And Queen and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly), as well as winning admirers amongst his national and the international audience. His work behind the camera is less well-known, despite having helmed a series of shorts and feature-length efforts. After 1997′s Mange ta soupe, 2001′s Wimbledon Stage and 2003′s Public Affairs, Amalric returns to his filmmaking duties after a seven-year absence with the 2010 Cannes Film Festival best director recipient On Tour (Tournée).
Returning to his native country after a prolonged absence, television producer turned neo-burlesque troupe manager Joachim Zand (Amalric, Wild Grass) receives a less than warm welcome. Having promised his performers – Mimi Le Meaux (Miranda Colclasure), Kitten on the Keys (Suzanne Ramsey), Dirty Martini (Linda Marraccini), Julie Atlas Muz (Julie Ann Muz), Evie Lovelle (Angela de Lorenzo) and Roky Roulette (Alexander Craven) – a regional tour culminating in a grand Parisian finale, his plans are forced to change when his former business associates refuse to lend a hand. Although some of the dancers are understanding, others – particularly Mimi – are unable to reconcile their disappointment with the way the trip has turned out. When Joachim’s children (Simon and Joseph Roth) join the journey, the group dynamic changes as the producer and his charges are thrust in an unexpected direction.
Succeeding as both an actor and a director is far from an easy accomplishment, with many trying to translate on-screen triumphs to the off-screen track yet failing to make an impact. For every Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), Robert Redford (A River Runs Through It) and George Clooney (Good Night, And Good Luck) there’s a Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables), Eddie Murphy (Harlem Nights) and Fred Savage (Daddy Day Camp), with the long list of candidates attempting the feat including Ben Affleck (The Town) and his brother Casey (I’m Still Here), as well as John Malkovich (The Dancer Upstairs), Zach Braff (Garden State), Sofia Coppola (Somewhere) and Drew Barrymore (Whip It). Thankfully, if the energetic and emotionally resonant, funny and finessed, and glorious and gorgeous On Tour is illustrative of his oeuvre, Amalric deserves to be classed amongst the best of the breed of thespians turned filmmakers. With a specific sense of style, a winning way with his non-professional cast of colourful real-life characters, and the deft to turn in his own outstanding performance yet again, he announces his status as a keen observer of human interaction, as well as confirming his consummate directorial skill and cultivated visual flair.
An adaptation of Collette’s 1913 text “The Other Side of Music-Hall” (or “L’envers du Music Hall”) that recounted the novelist’s foray into vaudeville shows, On Tour shows few signs of taking inspiration from a work close to a century old. Although the unique world the performers inhabit has an air of bawdy tradition heightened by the aged nature of the hotels and venues frequented, the distinct mindset and mannerisms of the dancers and their manager are thoroughly modern. Accordingly, credit must be directed towards Amalric and his fellow writers (Philippe Di Folco, Tom Frank, Marcelo Novais Teles and Raphaëlle Valbrune) for updating the text to contemporary times in such a convincing fashion. Also deserving of praise are the kittenish burlesque practitioners themselves, with each imbuing their roles with the naturalism and honesty expected given their background, yet avoiding the perils and problems of other performers turned actors. With Colclasure particularly impressive in the central role, and her co-stars as striking in their on-stage antics (performed as real shows in the towns visited, in front of local audiences), the overall dynamic of the cast is necessarily imperfect and subtly impassioned. In merging the old and the new in source material, style and substance, Amalric’s comic yet contemplative creation is authentic and eccentric, as it provides a piquant peek at a way of life both frolicsome and fractured.
The Reel Bits: Intimate and intricate slice of life neo-burlesque effort On Tour is both playful and poignant as it ponders the travels of an American dance troupe in France, with director and star Mathieu Amalric again proving his talents both in front of and behind the lens.
There is an incredible feeling of authenticity to On Tour, in no small part due to the use of non-actors and genuine neo-burlesque performers Mimi Le Meaux, Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Evie Lovelle and Roky Roulette. In a stark contrast to the sanitised Hollywood version of Burlesque, imagine if you will a world where Christina Aguilera had really let herself go and Cher weighed an extra 30 kilos or so. There is a gritty feel to this that mainstream US cinema would never dare go near, and although this is a fictionalised account (albeit with real performers) there is an almost documentary or cinéma vérité quality to the film. It is no surprise to learn that Amalric based the look of the film on US films of the 1970s, especially The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes. Indeed, the ghost of Cassavetes is highly present throughout On Tour, with the same spirit of improvisation and allowing the actors to find their own voices within the roles. The burlesque girls directly reference this during a rehearsal, stating that they create their own show for the audience and are not controlled by any man. Despite betraying a fragility to the outwardly rough-and-tumble troupe, one can fully imagine that the cast had a similar thematic relationship with Amalric.
Like an extended road trip, On Tour feels its entire 111 minutes and it is questionable as to whether it overstays its welcome. Certainly there is a definite pace to the film that Amalric consciously, although somewhat effortlessly, instills in the film and it would be difficult to remove any single part without disrupting the whole. Seemingly channeling a mixture of Steve Buscemi (and as one critic pointed out, an uncanny resemblance to a younger Roman Polanski), Joachim’s occasional bursts of outrage are all the more tangible when built on a foundation of uneasy frustrations, represented through the passing of time and the tedium of the road. Although there is much joy to be found in On Tour, there is also a surprising amount of sadness, and this too is found in those quiet reflective moments. More than anything, the film is very much like the unconventional family that is represents: it lives for the spotlight, shines when it is performing, weeps as a unit and would be lost without any of the elements that makes it whole.
The Reel Bits: An unconventional portrait of an unconventional group of people, handled with the delicacy and familiarity of a pro. Amalric solidifies his presence as an all-round performer/director, while allowing this cast of largely non-actors the ability to grow and make these often difficult roles their own.
On Tour is screening as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2011.