At first glance, molasses rolls uphill faster than The Company, Robert Altman’s penultimate film and his most radical late-period work (excepting perhaps Short Cuts). But beneath the elegance of the pristine stillness, Altman – ever a chronicler of humanity’s dances of distance and performances of connection – stages a malapropism of conventional drama by infusing every nominally placid moment with a galvanic reverie of human possibility, both clarifying humanity’s physical and mental limits and crystallizing around the species’ undying, even improbable, volition to undue those limits by riding the contours of life and inviting love even in spite of its fragility. And I do mean “the species”. Technically the story of a youthful rising-star Ry (Neve Campbell) in Chicago’s famed Joffrey Ballet, Altman instead farms energy out of the interpersonal lives of the principal players as a collective, emphasizing the beauty of movement and marginalia rather than central, individualist conflict.
A roux of improvisational and authoritarian impulses, the film itself mirrors elements of the ballet art – dogmatic attention to detail stirred with a freedom from pure austerity to provide room for liberating flights of feral feeling – while preserving a critical distance from ballet through the filmic medium. The guts of the story conjure images of backstage melodrama, with predating vultures and lions vying for seeds and positions, and the attrition-warfare of life behind the scenes. Hell, Altman even incorporates middle-aged dancers rapidly approaching their sell-by dates in the ballet world as if to dare audiences to connect his profoundly removed film with the venomous, carnivorous watering-hole dynamics of poisoned-pen Hollywood love letters like All About Eve. But the punchy, darting, discomfited eyes of typical backstage horror-farces are elsewhere in this phenomenally sober, reticent reflection on the limits of backstage life rather than simply the tet-a-tets and trysts and love-hate quarrels between any two principal figures. Altman imagines the back-stage not as an all-consuming, totalizing soap-opera drama but as a mere facet of a more complicated existence.
For Altman though, upending a genre as he does here isn’t merely an exercise, but a way of life, a philosophy. His camera always contingent – with multiple points of ingress in every frame – and his eye trained as a spectator, Altman deploys a holding pattern of low-and-slow camera movement and nearly invisible editing that evokes an unplanned perusal of space and a sublime fixation on finding life everywhere. Altman’s casual detachment hides a pervasive, puncturing joie de vivre for the creative process in all its mediums and outlets, with the observational demeanor tucking in various livelihoods and energies beneath its ostensibly quiet exterior. A world of possibility and dance in all forms, Altman is not tongue-tied with his dialogue, instead preferring to elevate the naked, unadorned motion and physicality of the human species into intoxicating realms of radiance. Even the elegant fluctuations in James Franco’s chef character, a boyfriend of Ry’s, mushroom into divine poetry, a parade of stasis and kinesis as he chops and dices and performs his own pirouettes with his hands.
For Altman, life as a cook can be art, and ballet can be work, with each a dialectic between the hard-scrabble realities of effort and charisma, energy and placidity, and occupation and passion. The cinematography, a mixture of hyper-saturated, dream-like color and grainy, lived-in, grease-painted reality, conjures exactly this contradictory question of art vs. life, until Altman dissolves the false dichotomy. We notice, for instance, that the characters’ shuffling movements around an apartment carry the same grace as their on-stage movements, begging whether their art has infused their lives and total identities. But then Altman affectively charges Franco eyeing Campbell (in a bar) with a hint of spectatorship and kink, Franco as her audience sliding an impromptu stage around her that she doesn’t even realize, turning life into theater without the actress’ permission.
All such observations exist within the milieu of life here, rather than as an affront to life. Altman’s camera never nullifies the film by turning it into a cabinet of boisterous proclamations, narrative contrivances, or pompous exclamations about whether characters are performing or premeditating their gaits (“is it all a dream”?, “what is reality after all?”). Instead, The Company’s diffuse camera explores movement and countenance with incisions of meditation and excavation that suggest the daily dialectic of humanity torn between conscious composure and unthinking pre-tracked movement. Rather than philosophizing with dialogue, The Company feels out the nature of life as a brew of doing and watching, planning-before-acting and acting-without-thinking, unearthing these dialectics in the contrast between the film’s formal arch-composure (characters moving like surgical needlepoint) and its shaggy-dog free-association in the pace, shot selection, composition, and style, as if the camera is just peering where its eyes may wander.
Altman’s mode, as it was in his ‘70s heyday, is a nominally unobtrusive detachment that actually doubles as enraptured fascination, so smitten with the balletic beauty of human motion at its purest that the film evokes a blend of spasmodic insouciance and near-authoritarian precision. As mentioned, this nicely corroborates certain elemental truths about ballet or any art in the balance between control and liberation. But it also doubles as Altman’s mantra not only for directing but for life, with characters roving, prowling, and dancing around the screen in a seemingly improvisational flurry as the camera sits back unfazed by the chaos all while secretly gesturing toward screen command, trying to control the uncontrollable without denying the uncontrollable in the first place. Take for example the slurry of humanity bustling and hustling every which way in the pandemonium of restaurant life, improvisation enlivening the margins, while Altman is silently honing in on Franco with a fascination for discovering his composure without sacrificing the world around the edges of the frame. The film rests on motion and moves on restfulness.
Rather than an overarching theme, however, the film opts for minute-to-minute updates, a fluxional demeanor that is itself an expression of the unplanned nature of life that interrupts the film, with Altman studying the characters’ reactions to “event” as part of the flow of their everyday life (as with Ry, whose injury at a critical moment is filmed with an almost alien objectivity, mirroring her composure as a person). Altman’s casual comparisons mirror this theme, upending our assumptions about stage life – where every character in other films would gnaw and salivate for a spot at the top – so that ballet becomes as much temporary workaday ritual as totalizing art. Ry’s passion can be shifted toward her personal love for Franco’s character, whose love in turn filters through his art/work when doctoring up an omelet for Ry, only for their collective harmony to then be intercut but not disrupted by an orgasmic dance production. This is no tangled web of signification though, but instead a mood piece with tendrils that elicit temporal comparisons between these various realms of life without necessarily erecting iron-clad lines between them. Work, art, life, love; all can coexist in simultaneity, and any one perspective on each – for instance, becoming obsessed with one’s art, or one’s work – is a recipe for disaster. The swiveling, sensual, trance-like pace of Altman’s film stimulates the beauty of shifting from lens to lens, perspective to perspective, to depict each stage of life contingently as a mere part of a whole tapestry.
Throughout, characters are incorporated into the harried fray of communal life while being marooned in the frame as Altman dances between the collective and the individual, betwixt the person as a whole and the person as a piece. His film swerves from central focuses to what would typically be immaterial tangents in another film. Throughout, he relies on his patented wide-angle lenses to flatten the depth of the screen, squashing foreground and background into one so that all the characters exist in a perpetual, collective state where they are both the focus and the backing material. Here, however, the nature of focus and margin are interrogated with every scene as Altman zooms toward focal points, not recklessly but with an ocular fascination as if peeking or clarifying his eyes in real time, only to pause, reorient his camera, and slither through the tangled forest of legs and arms. Ultimately he exhibits a directorial curiosity to breathe-in the horizontal nature of the world rather than laser-inscribe a single purpose into his camera; rather than omitting loose ends, he revels in them as the beauty of life itself. Much like his characters, he shifts, swerves, pirouettes, jives, and extends himself to the world as opposed to pursuing one dictatorial course of action to his death. Even nearing the end of his life, The Company shows Robert Altman resisting answers for a continual search for new questions lying dormant in the margins of experience.