The son of directors Agnès Varda (Vagabond) and Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg), and thus genetically predisposed to making the greatest film ever, writer-director-star Mathieu Demy instead seems cowed by their legacy in Americano, his disappointing debut feature. Culling clips from Varda’s 1981 mother-son film Documenteur, naming an exotic dancer in homage to his father’s 1961 classic Lola, and casting other famous progeny (Geraldine Chaplin, Chiara Mastroianni) in supporting roles, Demy leans heavily on a cinematic legacy that also seems to hold him back. Peel away the many layers of reference, and all that’s left of Americano is the raw need of a lonely, confused young man who’s distant from his family, awash in vague memories, and struggling to find himself. This is less a movie than a patient for pop psychologists.
Ambling its way through several striking locales, Americano begins in Paris, where Demy and his wife (Mastroianni) wake to the news that Demy’s estranged mother has died. Off Demy flies to Los Angeles, where he once lived for a couple of years as a child, to make arrangements for the funeral and get his mother’s apartment ready for sale. But once he gets there, the past gnaws at him: He’s angry about their non-relationship, and he can’t remember what his brief time with her was like. When he uncovers a piece of mail from a childhood acquaintance now living in Tijuana, Mexico, Demy steals a red Mustang convertible from his mom’s friend (Chaplin) and seeks out Lola (Salma Hayek), a stripper/prostitute at a seedy nightclub.
The relationship between Demy and Hayek recalls the one between Bruce Greenwood and Mia Kirshner in Atom Egoyan’s great Exotica, with the man returning night after night to pay not for stripteases, but for information about their shared past. (In both cases, the dance routines are staged to conspicuously moody song choices.) But where Egoyan constructs an emotional mystery that deepens as it goes along, Demy puts everything on the surface, not least his character’s absurd gullibility in dealing with Hayek and Tijuana in general. Though the gorgeously textured 16mm widescreen photography proves Demy has not entirely disappointed his pedigree, Americano tells a banal story at half pace, dressing up predictable revelations in warm, appealing style. Perhaps with this piece of personal baggage out of the way, Demy too can shake off the past and make his own mark.