There’s a good line in a Wallace Shawn film called My Dinner With Andre. Shawn plays a struggling artist who recalls that while growing up, all he ever thought about was art, and now that he is an artist, all he ever thinks about is money. I was thinking about that line just the other day while I watched, twice, a Robert Altman film called The Company.
Altman makes these densely-woven ensemble movies. Instead of having one or two major characters and a supporting cast, he will populate the screen with thirty distinct personalities, many of which will star in one or more scenes by the end of the story. The Company often feels like a documentary. The camera follows the Joffrey Ballet through one dance season, so mostly what we see is dance rehearsal and performance. In between, we see bits of the dancers’ lives.
There is very little dialogue, and almost no story line at all. Here’s the plot: Girl loses boy, girl gets boy. More specifically, as the story begins, a rising young dancer has just lost a boyfriend, and by the end, she gets a new one.
Visually, the film is nothing short of sumptuous, but the first time I watched it, the spareness of the story left me unsatisfied. The next day I found myself replaying scenes in my head, so I watched it again. This time it made perfect sense that the story had to find room for itself in between the long scenes devoted to the dancing. That is precisely what life is like for the characters themselves.
One of the themes running throughout the film is that of sacrifice. How much of yourself are you willing to give for a chance at what you want? The dancers sacrifice everything. Their intensity is so extreme that we are not at all surprised when they snap and break, both figuratively and literally, under the strain.