Robert Altman's film "The Company" follows the Chicago Joffrey Ballet for a season, focusing on the life of Ry (Neve Campbell), a young woman who is on the verge of becoming a principal dancer. There is little actual story-telling; especially compared to Altman's most recent film, the plot driven "Gosford Park," "The Company" feels almost like a documentary.
In addition to long sequences of actual performances by the Joffrey Ballet, we are taken back stage and into the private lives of the dancers: from scenes in the rehearsal space to the tables of gala events, inside company board meetings and into the dancers' apartments, crash pads with long bathroom queues and Ry's dingy studio whose one luxury is a marble bath tub. At times, Altman's detached view is tantalizing to the point of maddening, but unlike other famous films about the ballet ("The Turning Point," "The Red Shoes") the story never falls prey to melodrama. A dancer injures herself, and is replaced a second later. The camera does not dwell, nor does the narrative spell out the pitfalls of the dancer's life.
Neve Cambell (who originally trained as a dancer with the National Canada Ballet but quit after early injuries) developed the project for herself, co-writing the script with Barbara Turner ("Georgia," "Pollack.") "The Company," however, is no vanity project. Campbell is by no means the star, even though her presence is so winning, I will admit wanting to see more of her--a flaw which could just as easily be attributed as part of the film's success.
Malcolm McDowell and James Franco are the only other professional actors. McDowell plays Alberto Antonelli, the company's director. He is always a commanding presence on the screen, both God-like and petty, a yellow silk scarf wrapped around his neck. James Franco plays Campbell's love interest, a handsome sous-chef. In quick, fragmented scenes, we are witness to revealing moments: a minor tantrum by McDowell over a tray of bagels crowding a conference table, or Franco capably chopping red peppers on a cutting board as Campbell burns the toast.
The entrance into an another world is intoxicating, especially when it's as real as the one Altman creates: the blistered and bloody feet, the seductive leg warmers and pink toe shoes, moments in rehearsal studios when the choreographer speaks, and the dancers interpret. Campbell trained for two years to dance with the Joffrey Ballet, and the highlight of "The Company" is Cambell's performance in Lar Lubovitch's pas de deux "My Funny Valentine" during a thunderstorm.