From Stroszek to Paris, Texas to Arizona Dream, there’s a long cinematic tradition of European arthouse directors turning an outsider’s eye onto American culture, observing it like anthropologists on safari to some strange distant planet. At their best, these films can reflect visions of America from a skewed perspective not accessible to most natives, informed by a uniquely European combination of Hollywood romanticism and existentialism.
Many of those films are good, even great, but Mathieu Demy’s directorial debut Americano, now on DVD, is not among them, despite a worthy cinematic pedigree. As the son of legendary French New Wave directors Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Agnès Varda (Vagabond), Mathieu Demy spends his first feature striving for an uneasy balance between paying tribute to his parents’ formidable legacy and establishing his own unique voice. Unfortunately, with his film pulled in these two opposite directions, he only manages to do a middling job of either task. His story of a son’s journey from Paris to L.A. to Tijuana to settle his dead mother’s affairs is filled with references to the films of his parents, even quoting extensively from his mother’s 1981 film Documenteur, but it’s too often little more than an amalgam of those references bound together by listless clichés.
Demy, who also writes and stars, plays Martin, a Parisian so emotionally numb that he barely registers a reaction when he gets a midnight phone call that his mother has died in L.A. As a real estate broker, it falls on him to make the transatlantic trip to California to sell her apartment and settle her estate. Once he arrives and begins boxing up his mother’s things, he gets hung up on a letter he finds from his mother to a Mexican girl named Lola, who he vaguely remembers as a childhood acquaintance. It seems that Lola grew up to be his mother’s closest friend and confidant, virtually a surrogate daughter, and the letter reveals that Martin’s mother wanted Lola, not Martin, to inherit her apartment and assets.
Despite his cool exterior, the decision clearly stings Martin, who always harbored resentment about his mother’s distant relationship with him. Under the pretext of delivering Lola the inheritance paperwork he promptly sets off on a sojourn to Mexico, looking to find answers about his mother and deal with his own binational identity crisis.
Before long he finds Lola (played by Salma Hayek) in a seedy neon-soaked Tijuana strip club called, naturally, the Americano (possibly the only strip joint in Mexico that plays Rufus Wainwright instead of ZZ Top), and here the story’s real problems begin. As he develops an obsession with the magenta-wigged Lola, what began as an uninspired trip through well-worn territory begins to meander into predictable cliché — first a little, then a lot. In scene after scene, Lola takes his money and feeds him lines about his estranged mother’s true feelings for him, while Martin dithers between feelings of lust and sibling jealousy toward her as he sinks deeper into the grimy beer-soaked quicksand of Tijuana. (There are hints that Martin suspects Lola and his mother may have been more than just friends, giving his envy a creepy Freudian aspect, but Demy thankfully leaves that area unexplored.)
This second half of the move comes right out of a painfully familiar playbook — the regretful gringo drinking away his grief in a dingy south-of-the-border dive, besotted by a fallen angel with a heart of gold. Most of Demy and Hayak’s scenes together land with a predictable thud, as Hayak delivers clunky lines like “I don’t live in the past” and “I gave up living a long time ago,” while Demy entreats her, “You deserve better… you’re so beautiful.” Hayak gives a surprisingly wooden performance, and what is likely meant to be moody, brooding chemistry between her and Demy mostly just comes off as vacant blankness.
Of course, anyone familiar with this kind of story will know that not every character is what they seem, and the inevitable revelations that come in the third act are telegraphed loudly enough to be heard all the way back in Paris. After some token violence and right-on-time redemption, Martin emerges from America’s heart of darkness on his way back to France having learned… well, something or other about family, or grief, or national identity, one supposes — but exactly what about them isn’t entirely clear. (It doesn’t help that the film’s last line is a crude pun that calls back to the opening sex scene. It’s meant to be a deep, cathartic emotional moment, but it’ll more likely leave viewers groaning and smacking their foreheads. Maybe it’s a French thing.)
As a director, Demy’s vision of America is fairly obvious most of the time, such as the scene when Martin’s boorish Americanized aunt greets him at the L.A. airport dressed in a Dodgers cap, wraparound shades, and a neck brace, or the gratuitous scene of him driving a red mustang down the freeway while “L.A. Woman” blares unironically on the soundtrack. However, one bright spot is the gorgeous 16mm cinematography by George Lechaptois, which is often remarkable and hypnotic, full of deep reds and blues and a few bits of bravura camerawork, such as the mesmerizing tracking shot that introduces Hayak’s character onstage in a spotlight dance routine.
In the end, Demy’s film has much less to say about the mysteries of national identity than it does about his own identity as the son of famous filmmakers. Demy’s anxiety and ambivalence about being the progeny of famous parents is palpable throughout the film, both in the endless references to their work (a random example: Lola’s character is a clear reference to the titular cabaret dancer in Jacques Demy’s 1961 film Lola) and in the casting: Demy conspicuously populates his film with the children of other cinematic royalty, including Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) and Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve (who also happened to be pére Demy’s favorite actress).
Unfortunately, rather than making it richer, all of this nostalgia and self-referentiality very nearly overwhelm the film, instead. Demy clearly feels a self-conscious need to acknowledge his lineage but is unsure where to go from there. (He briefly explains this feeling of obligation to his parents’ legacy in a 9-minute EPK-style interview that is the DVD’s only special feature. If nothing else, it’s useful for explaining some of the references that might go over some viewers’ heads, but it does little else to illuminate the film.)
Perhaps after clearing the air with this first feature he’ll feel more confident to seek out his own style in future films. But that will still do little to recommend this shaky debut to most viewers, except curious connoisseurs of French New Wave marginalia or films by celebrity children.