Going To a (Border) Town That Has Already Been Burnt Down

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Published on June 20th, 2012 | by Daniel Guzmán


“Americano” is now showing at Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Running time: 106 minutes; Not rated; In French, Spanish, and English w/English subtitles.

An ambitious attempt at merging fiction with autobiography, “Americano” achieves moments of sustained cinematic truth, only to drown it amongst clichéd movie moments.

Making his directorial debut, French actor Mathieu Demy tells the story of Martin (played by the director), a Parisian incapable of committing to his girlfriend Claire (Chiara Mastroianni) as well as, one suspects, the larger notion of being a grownup. When news arrives from Los Angeles that Martin’s estranged mother has died, he travels to America to attend to her business affairs and to find some understanding as to why the two drifted so far apart.

You would think a film called “Americano” would spend a good chunk of time in the United States. Arriving in Los Angeles, Martin is greeted by his mother’s best friend Linda (Geraldine Chaplin), who helps him deal with his inheritance. However, shortly after a few cathartic moments, Martin discovers through a returned letter that his mother had bequeathed her apartment to a young girl Martin had briefly known during his time in the States. Off he goes to Tijuana to find this mystery girl, Lola—now a full-grown stripper and prostitute played by Salma Hayek.

Demy is the child of directors Agnès Varda (“Vagabond”) and Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”). As a nod to his pedigree, Demy incorporates real-life footage from his mother’s 1981 film “Documenteur,” in which he appeared as a child also named Martin (in a way, then, “Americano” is sort of a sequel to his mother’s film. How’s that for a good son?)

The fact/fiction blurring doesn’t stop there. Demy hired two descendants of cinema royalty to play the female leads in his story. Chiara Mastroianni is the daughter of French actress (and “Cherbourg” star) Catherine Deneuve, while Geraldine Chaplin is the daughter of—well, you know. Even Salma Hayek, while not connected to any celebrity lineage, shares a connection with a piece of family history—her character’s name derives from Jacques Demy’s 1961 film “Lola.”

The acting is top-notch. Demy does a fine job portraying a wide-eyed Frenchman in over his head. And Salma Hayek is delightful as she revives her “From Dusk Til Dawn” femme fatale status with another striptease, partly to show the beautiful sadness of her character (thanks in part to her rendition of Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town”), and partly because it’s Salma Hayek, and hell yeah—she knows she’s still got it.

One would like to associate this film with the brooding tales of Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas”) or the psychological landscapes of Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter” or “Exotica,” especially, for its strip-club-confessional motif), but the fact is that this film just isn’t that original. Yes, the play on fact and fiction is an interesting tidbit to share at dinner parties, and yes, the is-she-or-isn’t-she mystery surrounding Lola’s questionable history is also another good nod at this whole meta bit of storytelling, but it’s written in such block letters with thudding moments of factory-standard storytelling (I think “L.A. Woman” should be banned forever from films involving newbies struggling in the weird and wacky City of Angels) and clichéd characters (the hooker with the heart of gold, the man who thinks he can rescue her, the know-it-all street kid) that it negates any goodwill bestowed on the better, quieter scenes.

And it’s a shame, too, because there really are some lovely bits of storytelling in here. The finest moment comes shortly after Martin arrives at his mother’s apartment. While the mother’s old friend goes on and on about taking care of her during her last days, we follow Martin’s eyes as he slowly takes in the untouched world of his absent mother—the pillows on the couch where she once lay, the unwashed dishes, the dying plants. In this moment, the audience understands that, despite years of absence, Martin’s mother is a deeply influential person in his life. Later, Martin goes through the apartment and throws out everything, ending with a blank slate. It’s a shocking moment, so simple in the way it’s shot, and yet incredibly powerful when we are left with an apartment that, just moments earlier, was a home. It’s a new beginning for Martin, free of the responsibilities of the past. One hopes that the director’s next film is also as liberal with the casting out of excess baggage.

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About the Author

is a writer of fiction, articles, and critical essays. He lives in New York. www.danielguzman.org

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