BFI 55th London Film Festival: ‘Americano’ is a bit of an oddity

Americano

Written by Mathieu Demy

Directed by Mathieu Demy

France, 2011

As a first-time director, the last thing you want to be is forgettable. One way to avoid that is to emulate Orson Welles by taking on the additional roles of writer and star. A slice of Tarantino-style auricular torture always gets an audience’s attention, too. In his feature debut, the partly autobiographical drama Americano, Mathieu Demy does both. He also throws in Salma Hayek in a fishnet bodystocking for good measure. This isn’t Citizen Kane or Reservoir Dogs – but it does have its moments.

Demy, the son of directors Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, uses clips here from his appearance in his mother’s 1981 film Documenteur. Fortunately this is less pretentious than it sounds. The 9-year-old boy he played then, is now grown up and living in Paris with girlfriend Claire (Chiara Mastroianni). But Martin and Claire have reached a crossroads in their relationship. When he learns that his mother has died in LA, Martin reluctantly boards a plane to sort out her affairs and embark on a journey into the past.

Demy, who was recently seen in Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, is a likeable though slightly diffident leading man. For 40 minutes it’s intriguing to watch Martin rediscovering a city he’s rarely visited since his parents split up and he moved to Paris with his dad. Though he switches effortlessly between speaking English with a patronising lawyer and dealing with the emotional demands of his mother’s best friend (Geraldine Chaplin), you can sense his frustration. Those brief flashbacks to the shaggy-haired Martin struggling to get into an empty apartment, suggest his mother wasn’t always there for him.

But the Venice Beach section of the film is soon swallowed up by the Peckinpah-sized black hole known as The Road Trip to Mexico. You know what I’m talking about. The moment a protagonist crash-lands in Tijuana in pursuit of drugs, money or a missing person, he’s in deep trouble. The mystery at the heart of Americano turns out to be Martin’s childhood friend Lola, who stayed in touch with his mum and is in line to inherit her apartment. In his attempts to learn more, our hero is robbed, beaten and sexually humiliated. He barely escapes with both his ears intact.

The sight of Hayek performing a striptease, clad in a red wig and not much else, is arresting. But when Martin starts hanging out at the sleazy Americano club you wonder what’s next — a cameo from Quentin Tarantino or an orgy of vampiristic violence. The dingy back room encounters between Martin and Lola are a bit reminiscent of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), but dramatically they’re pretty aimless. Martin’s lassitude reflects a lack of control by the director, as though he doesn’t know where this story is headed either.

Americano is a bit of an oddity. Though it’s attractively shot with some dryly scripted scenes, it sits awkwardly between two continents – like its main character. Demy just about holds things together as the embattled Martin, but the supporting roles here all feel underwritten. You’ll probably figure out that Lola isn’t what she seems long before Martin does, but there’s little in the way of back story for Hayek to work with. Carlos Bardem looks as though he could play the snarling club boss, Luis, in his sleep.

It’s left to the characters in the French scenes that bookend the movie to hint at how this story might have developed. Back home, Martin’s dad (played by Jean-Pierre Mocky) and Mastroianni’s Claire are frustrated and angry but unable to exert any influence. “Are you drunk?” she asks when a dishevelled Martin finally phones to say he misses her. “You never say things like that. I’m worried.”

Susannah Straughan

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By Susannah

Susannah Straughan is a freelance copywriter, film reviewer and fan of good grammar and all things noir. The biopic of her life would (ideally) be written by Joseph L Mankiewicz, directed by Billy Wilder, photographed by Raoul Coutard and star Julianne Moore, George Clooney and Humphrey Bogart.

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