In promotional interviews, filmmakers frequently talk about making so-called “personal” movies, but rarely do moviegoers feel the tangible presence of this vague, mildly self-important adjective in the films themselves. Mathieu Demy’s “Americano” is another story; while not autobiographical, it could not more clearly be the work of its maker. Demy’s approach is not simply an embodiment of auteur theory, but an exploration of the self.
Demy, the son of famed international filmmakers Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) and Angès Varda (“Cleo from 5 to 7”), clearly understands what it’s like to live underneath a complex legacy, and indeed, “Americano” is largely about man’s struggle to understand how his roots affect his self. Demy stars as Martin, a Frenchman returning to his childhood home in Los Angeles to bury his mother and settle her estate.
After Martin arrives with the intent of wrapping things up quickly, dumping Mom’s things into trash bags and warding off her chatty friend Linda (Geraldine Chaplin), he becomes fascinated with a relationship–probably a friendship, but who knows–that his mother had with a Latina named Lola (not coincidentally the name of the protagonist in a 1961 film by Demy’s father). Apparently, their bond was significant enough to warrant his mother leaving her Venice home to the woman. Martin had not been close with with his mother in her final years, but he clearly wonders if Lola, who he supposedly knew as a child, should be significant to his understanding of his mother and, in turn, himself.
Martin gets a tip that Lola is now living in Tijuana, so he hops in Linda’s 1966 red mustang and drives across the border. He tracks her down–in the form of a radiant Salma Hayek, whose distinguished work this year suggests her career is entering a renaissance–at the strip joint where she works, paying for sessions so that he can pry for information. Their interactions do not contain much of narrative significance, but the mood and the actors’ performances are paramount to the film’s messaging. As Martin looks for answers in Lola, watching Demy’s face and forming our own insight about what the character is thinking and feeling makes for a fascinating viewing experience. In fact, viewers who project themselves onto Martin may learn something new about the ways that they personally self-identify in life.
Much of “Americano” is about searching — and whether the search is for a sense of purpose, self-worth, empowering knowledge, a connection with others, or something entirely different is up to the individual viewer. Demy’s ability to convey this abstract concept through imagery is particularly deft. The few montage sequences of Martin driving, for instance–no matter how obtuse or standard-issue an illustration of the theme–pack meaningful lyricism. (Though, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out, as a frequent Los Angeles-to-San Diego commuter, that the shots appear geographically out-of-order.)
The clear parental inspiration for Demy’s material never makes his approach obvious or over-the-top; on the contrary, this meta aspect of “Americano” is rich and relevant. As a first-time feature filmmaker, Demy discovers what components of his parents’ styles are relevant to him. The naturalism with which he tells the story definitely recalls Varda and the French New Wave in general (as does his penchant for film grain). He even explicitly evokes his mother’s work, incorporating footage of his younger self originally seen in her 1981 film “Documenteur.” This is definitely a movie that rewards cinephilia; I will be revisiting it after seeing more of Demy’s father’s oeuvre, for the illusions and inspiration beg to be understood.
“Americano” will undoubtedly be brushed off by some film journalists as too abstract, too referential, and too pedigreed for mainstream consumption. There exists a sentiment in the critical community that if we recommend movies considered too avant-garde, then audiences may respond in a reactionary manner and never give an independent film (even of the crowd-pleasing, Fox Searchlight-variety) a chance again. To hell with this bogus mentality. While versed film fanatics familiar with the work of Demy’s parents will undoubtedly enjoy “Americano” the most, this is a special movie for any viewer willing to actively engage it. It’s the most authentically “personal” film I’ve seen in ages — and as such, it manages to achieve universal resonance and an unexpectedly powerful conclusion.