The Company (12A)

A plot to support this film would have been nice
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There has never been a director for such peaks and troughs as Robert Altman. His form over the past 30-odd years has fluctuated so wildly that it's become impossible to tell whether his next will be a stunner or a stinker. Ten years ago, the stupendous one-two of The Player and Short Cuts was followed by the unspeakable Prêt-à-Porter. Two years ago, the inexorable mediocrity of his previous three films - The Gingerbread Man, Cookie's Fortune, Dr. T & the Women - was suddenly eclipsed by one of the greatest of his career, Gosford Park. The man is a law unto himself.

So, even if it's a hard lesson to learn we shouldn't be surprised that Altman's latest finds him back in a trough. The Company is a behind-the-scenes study of the Joffrey Ballet Company of Chicago, an ensemble picture shot in his trademark improvisatory style with all its edges deliberately untrimmed. It owes its conception to the Scream star Neve Campbell, a one-time student at the National School of Ballet in Canada, and screenwriter Barbara Turner, who accompanied Campbell on a two-year project researching the Joffrey. When they presented the idea of directing it to Altman, he at first hesitated on the grounds that he knew nothing about dance - but, after some thought, he "just decided to jump into the river". His words, not mine.

The film that emerges bears many of the characteristics we fondly call "Altmanesque" - overlapping dialogue, unresolved action, an on-the-hoof atmosphere - and gives us a ringside view of the bendy young men and women who make up the Company. (The cast is a mixture of actors and dancers).

Altman interweaves live performances with the day-to-day business of rehearsal, the badinage and the rivalries that constitute a dancer's life, and stresses the rigorous professionalism required to stay at the top. At one point during a rehearsal session a young ballerina suddenly crumples on stage, and her teachers exchange worried looks and whispers. It transpires that she has snapped her Achilles tendon, and will probably never dance again; but the unfortunate girl has no sooner been carted off to the wings than another eager young dancer has been summoned to take her place, and the rehearsal continues.

The curious thing about this incident, however, is its absolute impersonality. We knew nothing about that girl before (her name is barely spoken) and we hear nothing about her thereafter. Another dancer, whose progress Altman follows in desultory fashion, begs a friend to let him sleep on her floor for a couple of nights because his aunt, whose place he was staying in, has just killed herself. Again, we learn nothing more about this anonymous boy, or indeed his suicidal aunt. So what's he there for? A "story" has been credited to Campbell and Turner, but if Altman ever read it he must have decided to throw most of it out. There isn't a single plot-line worth the name here. Campbell herself plays Ry, a fledgling dancer who's recently joined the Company and caught the eye of its artistic director, Alberto Antonelli - "Mr A" (Malcolm McDowell) as he's known. Details of her situation leak through: she is close to her dippy mother; she waitresses in a bar at night (all dancers are broke, it appears); she lives in an apartment where the L train rumbles past her window.

One night we see her playing pool in a bar, and she and a young chef named Josh (James Franco) start making eyes at one another. Ah, you think, here's a moment for some romantic backchat, some getting-to-know-you interaction. Only there isn't. Altman cuts from that first eye contact to the morning after, with her in postcoital languor and him frying up a breakfast omelette. Thanks a lot! It's as though the film is purposely designed to block off all possibility of dramatic interest. Aside from Ry, the only other character remotely developed is McDowell's Mr A, a mercurial figure who alternately bullies and flatters his "babies". Having moaned about some error in tone ("I don't like pretty," he keeps saying) he will quickly coo to the assembled students, "But I love you all, you're great, OK?" When he hires a fey choreographer (a "right herbert" as Arthur Daley would have called him) to put on a dance spectacular called "The Blue Snake", you initially assume that Altman is being satirical, because the pretensions of this guy are enough to make a cat laugh. But no, everybody takes him quite seriously, and the implication is that we should too.

So what precisely is the point of this? Altman could either have made a backstage documentary about the Joffrey Ballet or else given us a modern rival to The Red Shoes. What we get is neither one thing nor the other, a sloppy, ill-focused ramble through the rehearsal process of a top-drawer company.

The fact that the process is overseen by one Mr A could be a tip-off: this muddle of guiding and goading is perhaps an arch transposition of Mr Altman's very own modus operandi on a film set. Mr A's sighing complaints about the lack of money only reinforce the autobiographical impression of an embattled film-maker. During one outdoor performance a storm brews overhead, yet the dancers and musicians soldier on amid the rain and high wind, and one senses Altman's pride in their professional determination to complete the job. The Company could almost stand as a vindication of the oldest saw of them all: the show must go on. Fair enough, but a plot to support it would have been nice.