The Company Review
The Company is not merely a film about ballet; it's a film about a specific ballet company… in this case the Joffrey Ballet Company of Chicago, with Neve Campbell and Malcolm McDowell slipped into their ranks as dancer and artistic director respectively. It's a strange and yet fascinating film – not quite a documentary (because there are actors and a script involved), and yet not your standard film with a storyline either. It's undeniably beautiful to watch, particularly during the many dance sequences, but also hard to classify.
The story behind the film goes thus: Neve Campbell, before her acting career (Scream, Party of Five, The Craft, etc.) was an accomplished ballet dancer and student at the National School of Ballet in Canada. Ever since she made the move to acting (which was partially due to ballet injuries) Campbell had, in the back of her mind, thoughts of a film that honestly portrayed the life of a ballet company. So with the success of her acting career, she was finally in a position to go pitch her film idea and let it fly – first recruiting Killer Films to help produce it. Campbell then approached Barbara Turner (Georgia, Pollock, and mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and brought her on board to work on the script. Once the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago agreed to participate, Turner and Campbell both got to spend quality time on site, interviewing and getting to know the dancers so that their anecdotes could be used to pull together a script for the film. At last, after a couple of years of research, the script was ready and Campbell referred to it as an 'Altman' type of film (because of the lack of focus on one main character) – but she'd never imagined she'd actually be able to get Robert Altman to direct it. Although it's true that Altman was initially reluctant to take on the project, his very reluctance was what drove him to go for it – feeling that new territory might be just what he needed.
Altman then cast the other key acting roles. Finally finding a film he could work on with Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), he selected him for the role of artistic director of the company. The final position went to James Franco (Spider-Man, City by the Sea), playing the young chef who Ry (Neve Campbell's character) falls in love with through the course of the film. The vast majority of the rest of people seen in the film is actually part of the Joffrey; the dancers act, but more importantly they're just themselves, giving the film the authenticity it really needs to succeed. There are some other actors taking roles as parents, but they don't have too much to do.
So onto the film itself. There's very little narrative, something reflected by the fact that ballet itself contains no dialogue. In a film, this also means little characterisation – it's definitely an ensemble piece. Scenes interspersed with rehearsals and ballets give us intimate insights into the dancers' lives, their pain, joy injuries and romances where the shortest amount of dialogue is imbued with enough triggers for us to fill out the gaps with out imaginations. But that being said, it's not the way the audience usually interacts with a film, and because of that it's definitely a strange experience to watch. Unlike many documentaries, there's no comment on the subject – the filmmakers have simply opened up a new world for us and let us watch it unfold.
As you might expect, the film includes a number of ballet performances. For the most part they're contemporary pieces from the Joffrey's repertory, and they're given an excellent amount of screen time... often shown completely, without regard for the time commitment they incur. Visually the film is superb; the rich colours and fantastic movement of the dancers is shown until it becomes quite hypnotic. That is, unless you absolutely despise ballet – in which case why are you even trying to watch this film!? It's almost a minimalist approach – detached and perhaps slightly cold, but somehow engaging nonetheless.
The Company is basically a season in the life of a ballet company, beautifully directed by Altman and with good, solid performances by the actors involved. Neve Campbell carries off the dancing fantastically and definitely adds another page to her CV here, showing off her commitment to the film and to being the best dancer she could be for it – this is no mere vanity role; she can definitely pull the dancing off. McDowell may seem a little stereotypical until you hear (in the commentary) that his performance is actually based on the real artistic director of the company and that he's in fact a little more understated than the real person the character is based on. Franco makes the best of his admittedly small role, bringing life to the love interest of the film. But really it's the company itself that is (quite appropriately) the star of the film.
The picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Filmed in High Definition Video, the picture is gorgeous throughout, and it has to deal with a wide variety of external lighting conditions. Inside dance studios, under harsh stage lighting, during an evening presentation outside during a thunderstorm, inside apartments and at a goth nightclub... throughout, flesh tones are exact and realistic, and the dark colours wonderfully deep. The mix of colourful costumes used for the ballets is rich and splendid and transitions are smooth and unobtrusive. Whatever flaws the overall film may have, there are very few noticeable in the picture quality itself, which really helps the film draw you into the fantastic dance sequences, as if you really were in the audience watching (from a variety of angles, of course).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound gets more of a workout here than in many DVDs I've seen recently. Although there is a fair amount of the film which doesn't use the back speakers all that much, when they do kick in, it's to superb effect. (For a quick example, jump to the 'My Funny Valentine' performance in the thunderstorm – and be prepared to pull back the curtains to check whether it's raining outside as you do so!) There's a huge variety of music throughout the film, and each piece is immaculate and full of rich tones that make you feel a part of the performance. Background music doesn't get in the way of dialogue (where there is any), and the only criticism I have of the soundtrack is that some of the non-dance moments are occasionally a little quiet, giving a sense of people murmuring rather than talking normally.
First of all, I'd like to just mention the menus briefly – because they're very relaxing to look at. Designed with a black colour scheme predominating, the disc menus emulate the feel of viewing key figures illuminated on a darkened stage. Featuring interesting images (the 'Extras' menu has a shot of Neve sitting to one side looking pensive, for example) and playing light jazzy music from the film in the background, they're a genuine pleasure as far as the senses go. Moving between menus includes some nicely thought-out transition sequences, though I did find it a bit difficult to distinguish between the 'normal' menu text and 'currently selected' text. This was more of a problem for me on the main menu than on any of the subsequent ones though – maybe I got used to the white/lilac distinction fairly quickly! There's no dedicated language menu, so the only subtitles option is 'on' or 'off' for English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing.
The most substantial feature is the audio commentary with Robert Altman and Neve Campbell. The commentary isn't subtitled, which is unfortunate as it's actually quite interesting. Sure, Neve is a little giggly for a good portion of the commentary, but when she does get serious and speak as co-producer and actress/dancer she gives some good anecdotes about how the film came into being from original inception to fruition. Altman discusses casting, shooting and technical details, but he also has some great anecdotes about the filming process on this film. It does just what any commentary should do if it's not rip-roaringly hilarious – it really adds to your understanding of the film, the process, the execution and the whole package – as such, it's well worth a listen.
There are two featurettes on the DVD, The first is called 'The Passion of the Dance' and does pretty much what it says. It's just over four minutes of clips of cast members talking about dance, dancing and the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet Company. Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, Barbara Turner (screenwriter) and Robert Altman contribute to this presentation, all discussing in one way or another the dedication, commitment and professionalism required to be a full-time dancer. The second featurette ('The Making of The Company') is a bit more meaty. Running at approximately seven minutes, it covers many of the points raised in the commentary, and works as a kind of extended trailer for the film. Once again we hear from Neve Campbell, Robert Altman, Malcolm McDowell and Barbara Turner, but here there are also snippets from James Franco and Andrew Dunn (cinematographer). If you don't have time for the commentary, definitely check this extra out for some additional insight into the making of the film and for Altman's famous quotation "I don't think I can go back and approach film the way I did before this".
Then we're down to the final two special features. The first is the trailer for the film. I'd not seen it before and I actually think it's a decent summary of what the film's going to be like, and even for it's short duration it's very pretty to look at. Finally, there's a two minute segment called The Dancers Show Off which shows the dancers in a rehearsal room doing their stuff. Not quite as show-offy as I imagined it might be, but it's a fun addition that doesn't have any cast or crew commenting, just gives the dancers of the Joffrey a chance to prance around a bit.
The Company definitely isn't a film for everyone. First of all there's no real story or narrative, just snippets of insight into the lives of the characters, pulled together with some fantastic ballet performances. I found that about halfway through the film I stopped caring about whether the story itself was going anywhere, and instead became hypnotised by the performances, looking forward to each for my next visual 'hit'. Altman has really surpassed himself in the presentation of dance on-screen... even on small-screen, as this DVD will inevitably be. It's a very different kind of film for me, and one I found intriguing as I became more and more fascinated by the dancing and the music. The DVD extras rounded it out nicely and explained so much so well that I'm glad they've been presented alongside the film in the way they have.
As for recommending the film, that's a really hard call. Some people will love it, but others will certainly hate it. If you can cope with a very minimalist approach, some beautiful direction and cinematography and fantastic ballet – then go for it. Otherwise – you have been warned, there's not much story, there's a lot of ballet and no one dies gruesomely!