How do you make a philosophic, talk-pause-smoke-pause French art-house movie when your cast centers around a brash, boisterously American troupe of leopard-clad, grind-and-shimmy dancers who sleep in their false eyelashes and speak almost no French?
Such was director/actor Mathieu Amalric’s challenge in making On Tour, the closing night film for San Francisco International Film Festival ’11. By French standards, he got it right: The film, inspired loosely by Colette’s turn-of-the-century music-hall memoirs, earned him a Best Director’s Award at Cannes last year.
Ostensibly, it’s a road-trip movie, but one in which being on the road is mostly a metaphor for dislocation and loss. Joachim Zand (Amalric), we slowly learn, was a once-hot producer and director. Now, with too many bridges burned behind him, he’s been reduced to promoting a American neo-burlesque show through a series of second-rate port towns, begging venue space, dragging his six performers (and their piles of suitcases and elaborate props, including an enormous pair of white feathered wings) from train station to hotel lobby to auditorium. For all their insouciantly displayed tattooed flesh, the glitter-dusted dancers command less of Amalric’s interest than the tangled, often opaque personal and artistic impulses driving his own character.
Shambling through the movie in a rumpled jacket, wispy mustache and ever-present cigarette, Amalric moves like Jean-Paul Belmondo trapped in the body of Steve Buscemi. His issues? He wants his work to stay real, to stay edgy, but in the process, he’s pissed off so many entertainment-world colleagues (including his very successful brother) that he’s insulted, slapped down and thrown out of theaters practically the moment he walks in.
Women seem to find him irresistible, but his marriage has failed, he has two sons he cares for only indifferently and his dancers treat him like something between a mascot and a not-very-effective sugar daddy. Trying to assert his authority over the troupe during a rehearsal, he’s exasperated by one slender blonde dancer wriggling her way through a bondage-themed rope act. “Good idea, but not sexy. You look like a worm!” he says, before turning to San Francisco native Suzanne Ramsey, who plays and sings as emcee Kitten on the Keys. As Ramsey starts warbling “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” he snaps, “Kitten, less little girl, please! Enough with this ’50s shit! How about some German rap, for a change?”
That moment was one of Ramsey’s favorites. “I got to tell him to fuck off, because he’s really an asshole in that scene,” she said. Utterly blasé, the dancers tell him that they have no intention of changing their acts for him; this is their own, very American version of burlesque, one where, as they tell a journalist interviewing the troupe, the man is no longer in charge.
But while the dancers got to perform their own routines in front of live French audiences, putting together the rest of the film was more of a challenge.
“We didn’t know what was going on at all. We never got a script,” said Ramsey. “It was calculated. Every take was different. We never knew what the story was.” Improvising their dialogue kept their scenes fresh, Ramsey believes—important when working with non-actors, and lending their scenes a more documentary feel. “But Amalric took a lot of input from all of us,” she noted, in shaping how each performer’s character would be presented.
The anarchic spirit of the group bubbles throughout the movie. “It’s always a party where we go,” laughed Ramsey, noting that French audiences have been “crazy for the movie” although music-rights issues have restricted it to the festival circuit. “We’re real and raw, very generous with our spirit, and really fun.” Touring in France, first as independent performers and then in support of the movie, Ramsey believes she and her fellow dancers have helped to spark a small but spirited burlesque revival in France, much as she was part of a similar revival happening around the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and other cities in the early to mid-’90s.
“It did seem like a very punk thing,” says Ramsey of her first foray into the sequins-and-pasties scene. The San Francisco Famous Burlesque Orchestra was made up of members of Flipper and other local bands, who played back-up to a group of strippers-turned-fan dancers. “We had circus arts, music, crazy costumes, all very DIY.” Influences came from everywhere, from the feather-decked tease-o-ramas of ’50s and ‘60s dancers like Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr, to the body-driven performance art of Karen Finley and Carolee Schneemann. Later, Ramsey worked as the emcee while playing piano and singing for the first new-burlesque tour in the U.S. and Canada.
An encounter with French cultural curator Kitty Hartl at the 2003 Teaseorama Burlesque Showcase in Los Angeles led to stints in France as part of the Cabaret New Burlesque. Amalric came across the group’s performances during their three-month residency in Nantes and became a fan, following their shows throughout France and Italy. They thought, at first, that he was just doing research for the project that would become On Tour. “We never thought it would be us, that he would end up casting Mimi Le Meaux, Dirty Martini, Roky Roulette (the group’s sole male dancer), Julie Atlas Muz, Evie Lovelle, and myself,” as the real-life dance troupe.
While Ramsey doesn’t know if the film will lead to more acting gigs, she’s “grateful and lucky” for the experiences she’s had so far. “I’m like this crazy ambassador with boobs!” she laughed.
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