Monday, 3 January 2011

'On Tour' review:

There are no less than two movies about burlesque entertainers doing the rounds in UK cinemas at the time of writing. The more heavily promoted and starrier of the two is 'Burlesque' which features Cher and Christina Aguilera in what looks like a brassy and tongue-in-cheek hybrid of Bob Fosse with 'Moulin Rouge' via 'Coyote Ugly'. The other is the self-consciously high-brow 'On Tour' (or 'Tournée') which snared its director and star Mathieu Amalric the best director prize at the most recent Cannes Film Festival. It is unquestionably the more authentic film, with its cast comprised of a real-life troupe of American burlesque performers who play themselves and perform to real audiences as they tour the coast of France with their fictional manager (a former French TV producer played by Amalric).

The scenes of performance are the film's strongest. There is an energy behind them and the women stage routines of real wit, the highlights being a routine which sees a dancer pantomime with a disembodied hand and another which sees a lady inflate and then climb inside a huge balloon. Whereas 'Burlesque' looks to define the form as "pop songs performed in lingerie" (up market stripping for the "Dirty" generation), the burlesque of 'On Tour' is every bit as knowingly parodic and grotesque as it ought to be. And whilst Aguilera and Cher are more traditional examples of female beauty (the latter arguably now defined by her eternal quest for physical perfection), the ladies of 'On Tour' are proper burlesque performers: brazen, unapologetic and unconventional as they confidently work against the idea of what the mainstream considers femininity.

The women tell a journalist that they are practitioners of the "New Burlesque" with the dances choreographed by the women themselves and not tailored specifically to titillate men. It is telling that Amalric has the most typically attractive woman picked out to do a television show despite the fact that she is regarded by the rest of the troupe as the least spectacular (or even competent) performer. The real burlesque, he is telling us, isn't shown in the mainstream media. It's curvier, racier and more vivacious than all that. The ladies are highly likable too. Especially Mimi Le Meaux (real name Miranda Colclasure) who seems vulnerable and a little sad beneath her vibrant and confident stage persona. When Amalric's producer has her remove her false eyelashes and make-up, all light and colour seems to leave her entirely.

Colclasure is the heart of the film and the most interesting character. It is a shame then that the film centres on Amalric's character and not the world of burlesque for most of its running time. Amalric is a really interesting actor and a charismatic presence, but the energy of the live performances, and the high spirited fun that characterises every scene involving the performers off-stage, gives way to a more introspective and melancholic atmosphere whenever we follow his character, as he attempts to reconcile with his two young sons. There is little to fault these scenes, which rival anything in 'The Father of My Children' in terms of pathos, other than the fact that you feel they are getting in the way of the fun and slightly tacky film you wanted to watch.

It is ultimately the tale of an isolated tour manager: a person who is surrounded by sex and drinking and laughter but is not involved in any of it. He constantly, somewhat desperately, insists that he is closest to these girls and that they are his real family, though this sentiment is not really convincingly reciprocated by the women themselves who seem to resent him entirely, bemoaning their poorly run tour which does not even include a gig in Paris.

Like 'Up in the Air', 'On Tour' is a film about a man on the road running away from making meaningful connections, and if approached on those terms it is successful and even insightful filmmaking. When the film ends, with a solitary Amalric miming an energetic howl to a soaring rock and roll number, there is no question that it is ironic. The problem with 'On Tour' is that Amalric intermittently opens a window onto something more fascinating and exciting than all that, yet never long enough for us to get a proper look, making it feel like a missed opportunity.

'On Tour' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out now on a limited release.

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