Americano: Toronto Review

Mathieu Demy’s first feature invites more academic interest than dramatic involvement.

French actor Mathieu Demy stars alongside Salma Hayek in his feature directorial debut as a man searching to understand his own past after his mother dies.

It features Salma Hayek as a Tijuana stripper and prostitute, at one point plying her melancholy sensuality in a sheer body stocking. But Americano is not the seedy, south-of-the-border love story that pivotal character might suggest. Instead, French actor Mathieu Demy’s debut as writer-director is a ruminative exploration of family, loss and corrosive memory. It also pays homage to the work of his parents, Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, whose respective trademarks of unadorned documentary realism and poignant romantic fantasy are threaded through the film in explicit citations.

Picked up for North America out of Toronto by MPI Media Group, the meandering drama is likely to be of interest on DVD and VOD chiefly to French arthouse aficionados intrigued about the legacy of those two personally connected but stylistically distant post-New Wave figures. Its own merits are more scattershot, with writer-director Demy struggling to emerge from the shadow of his twin influences and mark out persuasive territory of his own.

Demy plays Martin, a morose Paris real estate broker, ambivalent about his relationship with increasingly impatient Claire (Chiara Mastroianni). He reacts coolly to news of his mother’s death in California, flying to Los Angeles with the intention of packing up and selling her Venice apartment. But as the warm recollections of family friend Linda (Geraldine Chaplin) challenge Martin’s impressions of his mother as a depressive mess, insistent childhood memories surface to further test his detachment.

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Demy blurs the line between fiction and autobiography by lifting those images from Varda’s 1981 mother-and-son portrait, Documenteur, in which he appeared at age eight opposite Sabine Mamou. Cinematographer George Lachaptois shoots the same seemingly unchanged neighborhoods in Super 16, fluidly integrated with the scratchy 16mm excerpts from Varda’s film, while composer Gregoire Hetzel expands on Georges Delerue’s earlier score.

A childhood photograph with his mother and a Mexican girl to whom she remained close sets Martin off on an alienating odyssey in a red Mustang convertible stolen from Linda. The object of his quest, Lola, takes her name from the eponymous cabaret dancer played by Anouk Aimée in Jacques Demy’s first film.

In Hayek’s enigmatic incarnation she’s introduced in a shabby Mexican sex club, improbably lip-synching to Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town,” with its languid refrain of “I’m so tired of you, America.” Lola claims to have no interest in the past and no memory of the photograph, but being in the business of catering to anomie-afflicted men’s fantasies, she tells Martin what he needs to hear about every mother’s indelible attachment to her child.

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As Martin wanders Tijuana in a battered dream state, searching for answers to questions he’s barely able to form, the film drifts between listlessness and episodes of violence. It’s not without hypnotic moments, but while Demy’s character eventually is able to own his grief and perhaps move forward, the wafting, somewhat mannered approach makes Martin too remote a figure to give definition or weight to his emotional journey.

The primary appeal of Americano lies in witnessing the attempt of a famous progeny to forge his own creative path, as Demy’s struggle with artistic inheritance resonates throughout unmoored Martin’s voyage between past and present.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (MPI Media Group)
Production companies: Les Films de l’Autre, Cine Tamaris, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Mathieu Demy. Salma Hayek, Geraldine Chaplin, Chaira  Mastroianni, Carlos Bardem, Jean-Pierre Mocky, Sabine Mamou
Director/screenwriter: Mathieu Demy
Producers: Mathieu Demy, Angeline Massoni
Director of photography: George Lechaptois
Production designer: Arnaud Roth
Music: Georges Delerue, Gregoire Hetzel
Costume designer: Rosalie Varda
Editor: Jean-Baptiste Morin
Sales: Bac Films
No rating, 106 minutes