PLOT: When Martin hears of his mother’s death at her home in Los Angeles, the Frenchman is convinced to go back to take care of her estate. Years before he had lived there with his mother, yet he decided to move back to France with his father. Upon his return he discovers that his mother planned to leave her apartment to a mysterious woman named Lola. Overtaken with grief, he decides to track down the woman in hopes to understand his past and the relationship his mother secretly shared.
Mathieu Demy’s AMERICANO is a dark yet sometimes compelling tale. In the film – which he also wrote and directed – he plays Martin. Once upon a time Martin lived with his mother in Los Angeles after his parents separated. Yet when he was a child, he begged to return to France to live with his father. As an adult, his relationship with his mother had grown cold. Alone, without her son and her husband, she found solace in a childhood friend of Martin’s named Lola. After his mother’s death, Martin returns to Los Angeles to prepare his mother’s estate only to realize that she left Lola her apartment. He soon finds himself looking for Lola in an attempt to reconnect with the mother he has forgotten about.
Lola is a key figure in this mystery. Played by the talented Salma Hayek, the central character doesn’t appear until the second half of the film. Yet ‘Lola’ represents everything to Demy’s Martin. She is a map to his lost memory. What is it about her that drew his mother in and why was she so important? When Hayek finally makes an appearance she brings a disquieting uncertainty to Martin. Thankfully, Hayek retains the mystery of Lola throughout as much of the film revolves around how she connects to the grieving son. She gives a bleak and subtle strength to her performance, even if she feels a little clichéd at times. On paper she is simply a woman with an unexplained past who may have questionable motives for her actions, thankfully Hayek rises above it all and makes it work.
As for Demy, you have to respect the emotional levels he seeks out with what could be viewed as a tribute of sorts to his real life filmmaker parents Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. While I’m only slightly familiar with their work, their son Mathieu brings a classic tone to this misshapen and sometimes frustrating work. Shot on film, there is a sort of grainy quality to AMERICANO which is actually very effective. In flashbacks of Martin with his mother, he is able to capture the essence of home movies shown when somebody is feeling nostalgic. As a director, he brings a quiet and deliberately paced tension to the story. As slow and sometimes strangely cut together, you have to admire his commitment to telling the tale he wants to tell.
As good as AMERICANO can be, it stumbles a little throughout. There are moments that seem so sloppily paced that you begin to wonder why a particular scene was there at all. However it occasionally seems to fit together, aside from one or two that just structurally don’t seem to work. The first half takes a little time to really get to the heart of the matter. Once he arrives in Los Angeles and meets up with Linda (Geraldine Chaplin) who has been taking care of his mother, you can tell that things can’t get much better for him. It is just too bad that the character of Linda is a so darn grating at times. No wonder why he was so quick to get away from her. Credit however must be given to Chaplin as she does give a strong performance, irritating or not.
Another problem with AMERICANO is the supporting players. Aside from Demy, Hayek, Chaplin and Chiara Mastroianni as Martin’s girlfriend, much of the cast appear to run the gamut from bad to adequate performance wise. Perhaps this was a choice made by Demy to give his film a sense of realism as there certainly is one, yet this is not aided by weak actors. It could also have something to do with it being Demy’s directorial debut, or maybe the budget. Either way, nearly every time a person appears with a short line or two, it lessens the beauty of this challenging yet intriguing feature film. Luckily the mystery surrounding ‘Lola’ still kept me involved enough to want to see the outcome. Of course if you can’t get past the flaws, you could always rent it just to see Salma’s exotic dance number. Ah, the important things in life!