It features Salma Hayek as a Tijuana stripper and prostitute, at some point plying her melancholy sensuality in a sheer body stocking. But Americano isn't the seedy, south-of-the-border love story that pivotal character might suggest. Instead, French actor Mathieu Demy’s debut as writer-director is really a ruminative exploration of family, loss and corrosive memory. It also pays homage towards the work of his parents, Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, whose respective trademarks of unadorned documentary realism and poignant romantic fantasy are threaded with the film in explicit citations.
Acquired for North America out of Toronto by MPI Media Group, the meandering drama will probably be of interest on DVD and VOD chiefly to French arthouse aficionados intrigued concerning the legacy of those two personally connected but stylistically distant post-New Wave figures. Its very own merits are more scattershot, with writer-director Demy struggling to emerge from the shadow of his twin influences and mark out persuasive territory of his own.
Demy plays Martin, a morose Paris real estate broker, ambivalent about his relationship with increasingly impatient Claire (Chiara Mastroianni). He reacts coolly to news of his mother’s death in California, flying to La with the intention of packing up and selling her Venice apartment. But because the warm recollections of family friend Linda (Geraldine Chaplin) challenge Martin’s impressions of his mother like a depressive mess, insistent childhood memories surface to help test his detachment.
Demy blurs the road between fiction and autobiography by lifting those images from Varda’s 1981 mother-and-son portrait, Documenteur, by which he appeared at age eight opposite Sabine Mamou. Cinematographer George Lachaptois shoots exactly the same seemingly unchanged neighborhoods in Super 16, fluidly integrated using the scratchy 16mm excerpts from Varda’s film, while composer Gregoire Hetzel expands on Georges Delerue’s earlier score.
A childhood photograph with his mother and a Mexican girl to whom she remained close sets Martin off with an alienating odyssey in a red Mustang convertible stolen from Linda. The item of his quest, Lola, takes her name from the eponymous cabaret dancer played by Anouk Aimée in Jacques Demy’s first film.
In Hayek’s enigmatic incarnation she’s introduced in a shabby Mexican sex club, improbably lip-synching to Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to some Town,” using its languid refrain of “I’m so tired of you, America.” Lola claims to have no interest in the past and no memory from the photograph, when you are in the industry of serving anomie-afflicted men’s fantasies, she tells Martin what he must hear about every mother’s indelible attachment to her child.
As Martin wanders Tijuana inside a battered dream state, trying to find answers to questions he’s barely able to form, the film drifts between listlessness and episodes of violence. It’s not without hypnotic moments, but while Demy’s character eventually is able to own his grief and maybe move ahead, the wafting, somewhat mannered approach makes Martin too remote a figure to give definition or weight to his emotional journey.
The main appeal of Americano lies in witnessing the attempt of the famous progeny to forge his own creative path, as Demy’s have a problem with artistic inheritance resonates throughout unmoored Martin’s voyage between past and offer.