Like neo-burlesque dancer Dirty Martini, Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour is a fictional cocktail with a documentary twist.
Girls On Film by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
With the lustre of Fifties retro still glowing strong, it feels perfectly natural, after the stylised severity and shimmer of pop tarts like Paloma Faith, Mad Men and A Single Man, that Neo-Burlesque should finally raise a nipple tassle or two. And if you don’t fancy the brash boardtreading of Cher and Christina, then Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour has enough burlesque brio and greasepaint to make curious punters dizzy. From its bedazzling neon titles – a parade of leading lights headlining Mimi Le Meaux, Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Evie Lovelle and Roky Roulette – you could expect ninety minutes of just tease and strip. Yet On Tour is from the right side of the tracks, based on the Colette novella The Other Side of Music-Hall and garnering Best Director and FIPRESCI awards at Cannes. But is this good-girl-turned-stripper act just an excuse for ogling all those curvaceous Marilyns?
Stepping in only six weeks before filming to take on the main role of Joachim Zand, Mathieu Amalric is suitably saturnine as the producer bringing Neo-Burlesque showgirls over from the US to tour France’s provinces. They’re feisty broads, empowered women unwilling to reign in their artistic independence or be mastered by their male manager. It’s their show after all. But it’s also a road, or train movie of sorts, with Pigalle as the ultimate, unobtainable dream. Like a wayward prince returning from conquests abroad, Zand hopes to lead his legion of luscious headturners into the homeland all fanfares blazing. It’s largely based on the overburdened and ultimately suicidal producer Hubert Balsan, also the subject of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Le Père De Mes Enfants, but Zand’s battle for Paris is futile, despite his attempts to build bridges with the brother he betrayed, his estranged kids and a grudge-bearing theatre producer. But as he tours port and province with the girls – Le Havre, La Rochelle, Nantes, Sète and Toulon – to rapturous applause, it’s his family of burlesque beauties that really captures his heart.
Like the bedtime story of the Russian prince and the three daughters Zand struggles to tell his sons, he’s more like a father to his girls than a canoodling impresario. Only the riproaring Mimi Le Meaux comes close to him. He flirts with her even buying her late-night apples. But his indefatigable egotism reigns supreme, and a cautious interest is neatly muffled by a blunt quip, “I could love you if you were talented.” Quickly reverting back to safe indifference. he gives in to the possibility of love only to take it straight back again. As the silverhaired and mustachioed fox, Amalric’s great. As always. But he’s also really the only one given the chance to shine, to act. And as such, it’s a strange collision of narratives – of fiction and documentary with only Mimi limber enough to straddle those two stools. Borrowing his mother’s surname, Amalric as Zand is our fictional conduit into this sublimely vaudevillian underworld, forced to shoulder the weight of story alone. But there’s another, even greater pleasure to behold. Of pure sequins and sparkle.
Aglow with make-up mirrors, fluttering false eylashes and whispering feather boas, Tournée really comes alive with its dancing shards of backstage limelight. It’s a modern version of Degas’ danseuses, a kinetoscope of ostrich fans barely concealing tattooed curves. Here Amalric seems in complete control of le look, the neo-burlesque subject beguilingly submissive to his every touch. But this documentation of the fictional tour is strangely at odds with Zand’s struggles and the girls’ idle conversations. Not expected to act, or imbue the film with story, the dancers are at times no more than corpulent shades ambling in front of the camera, armed with nothing more than their own natural charm and charisma to defend themselves from the camera’s withering eye. But like the subtly opaque oppositions between man and woman, actor and director or fiction and documentary, On Tour is a film built on the fragile trust that keeps these poles together.
Enigmas or cul-de-sacs, there are a lot of delicious episodes in Amalric’s Tournée. His beyond-the-pane encounter with a service station assistant is brief but touching – a singular warmth compared to the familiar blizzard of brusqueries and continuous requests for hotel staff to turn the music down. But it’s rare that Zand can ever be accomodated, and as the unsleeping loser tries in vain to keep it all together, his final existential scream provides a satisfying, if awkwardly bemusing ending. It’s rich, with fairytale references to Frog Princes and allegorical apples as well as Colette, Hubert Balsan, gender dynamics and a narrative of marginalisation. Sumptuous and velvety, it’s more than the sum of its parts, On Tour is a slice of life.
On Tour is released in the UK on 10th December 2010