Mathieu Amalric takes the show on the road as actor, writer and director in burlesque comedy On Tour, this year’s surprise double-award winner at Cannes. Taking inspiration from French novelist and performer Colette’s musings in her 1913 text The Other Side of the Music-Hall, Amalric found the modern-day equivalent of wit, showmanship and hedonism in the stars of the US ‘new burlesque’ scene, some of whom he invited to play themselves in the film.
Amalric takes on the role of Joachim, a French former television presenter who has fled to the US leaving a string of debts, a broken marriage and two young sons behind. He returns to his homeland to produce an American dance troupe’s tour, promising performers Roky Roulette, Mimi Le Meaux, Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini, Evie Lovelle and Julie Atlas Muz all the excitement and exoticism of France, but delivering only characterless chain hotels and a non-stop schedule around portal towns such as La Rochelle, shown in all their out-of-season glory.
This is the first time the new burlesque movement has been given the big screen treatment in a fictional film. With the big characters, the diversity of the performers and the post-feminist values that underpin the work of many in the field, the scene offers a fertile ground for story-telling. But although the film’s opening scene, in which some of the performers attach false eyelashes and nipple tassels in their changing room, promises an insight into life on the road, the script soon reduces the troupe to Champagne-swilling brats and turns into a study of the troubled Joachim who, it transpires, has ulterior motives for tempting them to Europe.
This is not wholly a bad idea. Joachim, an argumentative, chain-smoking ball of nerves, is played with breathtaking intensity by a moustachioed Amalric. His incompetent attempts both to keep up the momentum of the tour and to rectify his relationship with his sons are expertly bittersweet. There are many reasons, for example, why he shouldn’t deposit the boys at a kiddies’ play area in a hospital so he can beg his cancer-stricken friend for a favour - but the most poignant is that they’re nearly teenagers.
The problematic element of focusing on Joachim’s journey lies in the elliptical love story between him and Mimi, a blonde bombshell whose wistful glances and unexplained tears mark her out as the ‘troubled one’ of the troupe. Despite Joachim pouring vitriol on her profession and asking her scornfully if she plans ‘to jiggle [her] whole life’, they share a few meaningful moments and they reach some kind of mutual redemption at the end. But their relationship is unconvincing, mainly because Mimi’s delivery is deliberate and her acting reserved (perhaps as a result of her being a woman playing her burlesque alter ego playing herself).
More’s the shame because on stage she’s a revelation. Amalric staged the shows for real, filling the beautiful regional theatres - picked out with loving attention by the camera - with audiences and filming the performances and wing-side scenes while the shows were going on. Short-changed with brittle dialogue, it is on stage that the troupe really shines, with the witty performances, combined with a rocking soundtrack of R&B and brassy orchestrals, giving a tantalising hint at what the film could have been had Amalric proved himself as good a filmmaker as he is an actor.