Mathieu Amalric's 'Tour' stops in Cannes

Burlesque dancers make a splash on the Croisette

CANNES -- It was hard to conjure two more diverse movies In Competition -- or their follow-up pressers -- Thursday in the first full day of official screenings on the Croisette. The one, French -- effervescent, outre and a little discombulated; the other Chinese -- melancholic, slow-burn and subtle in its approach and emotions.

The Chinese entry, called "Chongqing Blues" from director Wang Xiaoshuai, was much closer in tone and mood to the typical fare that competes for the Palme d'Or -- austere, spare and psychologically probing. The Gallic contender, called "On Tour," concocted by the well-known French actor Mathieu Amalric (and recent Bond villain) who co-wrote the screenplay and directed as well as starred, was one of the most lighthearted and rambunctious to grace the Croisette in years.

Their back-to-back turns with the press were in keeping with their cinematic offerings.

"I thought of it in part as an homage to femininity," Amalric told reporters. "But you don't make a film just with themes. That would be boring."

Au contraire, the newly minted French auteur, who was clearly in his element on stage, was surrounded with beaucoup pulchritude on the podium: five real-life "new burlesque" performers from the States, who were called to act/perform in the film as they tour around the French boonies.

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For these stripteasers turned momentary stars, it was, well, a dream come true.

"I really thought we were being called over to France to consult and train French actresses to do the roles, but no, Mathieu really wanted us," one of the stars, Kitten on the Keys, told the gathered journos.

The response from another of the actresses, Mimi Le Meaux, who got to live her French fantasy: "Thanks for your cheese!"

Enjoying the attention from the press and the photogs more than most Cannes abituees, Amalric & Co. talked about how all the numbers in the movie were created and performed by the girls themselves and how involved the towns they filmed in -- mostly Le Havre, which helped fund the pic -- and the crew itself got into the groove. By the end of the shoot, Amalric said, the crew surprised the actors by performing their own striptease number.

Asked how much he enjoyed hanging out with the cast, Amalric admitted to having to rework the script most of the time and having to get to bed early every night. His own inspirations for the movies, which took five years to put together, ranged from Colette, an article on "nouvelle burlesque" in the daily paper Liberation, and Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz!"

He also said he had for long been fascinated by the lives of nomadic troupes and their family-like interactions as well as by the job of producer, which is the character he plays in the movie.

Of course it wouldn't be a proper Cannes press conference without a few deep questions:

"Are you all feminists?" and "Is your film a critique of body image?"

The "historian" of the groupette, Dirty Martini, ran with these. "Sexual expression is all controlled by men and the media. Burlesque is a way to break down gender sterotypes."

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The performers, who have worked together for almost a decade in the States, have even studied the rarely filmed burlesque dance numbers from the '40s and the '50s, (saved on video by Weird Video), to build on the traditions of their art form.

So, their chances of winning the top prize?

Amalric, who's been a regular on the red carpet for years with movies in contention, was quick to dismiss any notion of that when it's all just fun to be there. Right...

The women, however, made no bones about relishing all the attention: "Love your hair; hope you win."

Who doesn't like to hear that?

As for the Chinese contingent, they too probably would, but they were much more reserved in their responses to the Cannes press.

A reporter from Shanghai asked director Wang his reaction to hearing that his film, a story of a seafaring father who returns to his hometown to come to grips with the death of his son, had gone over, in his view, only so-so ("pas mal, pas mal," is how he put it) with the critics.

"They have less confidence in my film than I do," is how Wang handled that salvo.

Otherwise, the questions were mostly reverential, and demostrated just how many Chinese media outlets are now coming to Cannes.

One element that translated well in the movie was the in-depth look at the city of Chongqing, which Wang said had gone through rapid "development" back in the 80s. The picture deftly suggests how an entire working class continues to function largely unchanged there amid the skyscrapers and bright lights. It also tellingly handles the theme of generational divides, which are seemingly as wide in China as in the West.

The main character in the film, Lin, finds "values and sentiments that have been lost in our economically demanding society," Wang said.

One of the constructs of the film is Lin's attempt to re-imagine his son via blow-ups of a police video. Turns out there are no surviving photos of the young man, because he believed being photographed was like trying to cheat death.

Wang, too, offered that he doesn't like being photographed but this being Cannes ... he has submitted.