Do filmmakers’ children dream in 35mm? In his first feature film, Americano, Mathieu Demy seems to be playing with this idea, as he borrows footage, characters, and even conceptual preoccupations from the films of his parents, Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy. The younger Demy’s film is a fiction, but his evocation of a man’s difficulties when confronting his long estrangement from his mother is so wound up in the artifacts of his own parents’ films that it’s clearly a personal story. Whether it’s a story that Demy can make relevant to the rest of us is not as clear.
The film introduces Martin, played by Demy himself, with a woman’s legs wrapped around him, just at the moment the French call la petite mort. Cut to some hours later on that same night, when Martin is roused from sleep by a ringing phone. He swears, then says to his girlfriend (Chiara Mastroianni), “My mother is dead.”
A Frenchman with an American passport, Martin subsequently arrives at LAX with—as he says—“no baggage.” We know this isn’t true even before we see him cast a heavy glance at the disarray of his dead mother’s condo. “She’s your mother, not mine,” his father (Jean-Pierre Mocky) spits at him across a makeshift dinner table. “I can’t take care of the formalities for you.” These formalities, of course, entail more than just the business of selling his mother’s condo and deciding what to do with her belongings. And so, even as Martin begins the process by shoving every last one of his mother’s clothes and books into giant trash bags and leaving them on the curb, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That other shoe, as it turns out, is a girl named Lola (Salma Hayek), a childhood playmate Martin has long forgotten and, he learns, the child his mother doted on in his nearly 20-year absence. His determination to find this Lola never seems quite credible, but he eventually trails her to Tijuana, where she’s dancing in the strip club that gives the film its name. From the moment she appears as a child in a black and white photograph, Lola is set up as a cipher—for Martin and, presumably, for us. As played by the always arresting Hayek, the Lola who appears in the club Americano—head covered with one of those pink novelty wigs, a scar running the length of one cheekbone—is equally mysterious.
Once he’s found Lola, Martin then loses himself in that small corner of Tijuana, actually loses his passport and the Cadillac he impulsively borrowed to get there. He means to get Lola to tell him about his mother. But, we note, she’s in a line of work that caters to men’s fantasies. And although the woman in the pink wig does hesitate when she hears Martin’s somewhat unorthodox request, she eventually takes his money. Whether it’s truth or fiction she gives him is, we come to understand, immaterial. She is, in many ways, a proxy for both him and for his mother.
On a conceptual level, Demy’s film is a clever Cornell box of familial artifacts: Martin’s childhood memories are lifted straight from Demy’s mother’s 1981 film, Documenteur, in which he played the eight-year-old son of a fictionalized version of Varda; Lola’s name is lifted from his father’s 1961 film of that name; the house key carried by the child Martin of Documenteur resurfaces here as the locker key where Lola stores her belongings; the score is drawn from an altered strain of Documenteur’s. And so on. The film is even shot in the same, slightly grainy 15mm stock that his mother used for her 1981 film.
But clever doesn’t necessarily translate to compelling, or convincing. Demy has the unfortunate habit of didactically telegraphing Important Ideas, even relying on awkward exposition to get us to see what might have been better suggested. So, for instance, when Lola first appears on stage at the Americano, shimmying to a Rufus Wainwright song whose lyrics spell out her life story, you wince a little. Same with the plucky Mexican kid (Pablo Garcia), an obvious throwback to the younger Martin, who serves as a sort of trickster guide and confessor in Tijuana. And when Martin’s mother’s landlord inadvertently spills the beans about Lola, via a conveniently located photograph and some over-determined small talk, it feels more than a little ham-fisted. Unfortunately, a lot of the dialogue comes out that way, slowing the pace and (as was evident in the screening I attended) making viewers squirm.
This is too bad, because the film is often visually engaging, full of objects and artifacts that radiate some kind of significance. And sometimes, rather endearingly, they do evoke understanding, or maybe our own memories. The scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers that Martin unearths in a childhood notebook at his mother’s home are faded and have lost their odor; the blobular contents of a lava lamp join and then drift apart; eggs sizzle in an undifferentiated mass in their skillet. Even that small talk scene with the neighbor takes place in a kitchen so chock full of framed photographs and film-developing equipment that it’s a shame the dialogue is so distractingly explicit.
Such objects suggest stories in Americano. The film is interested in how we inherit them, how we retell them. We can see Demy here working through what amounts to an inheritance of stories. Still, he has not quite managed to make this one his own.