I slipped into this screening because my dinner took too long and I missed the start of Chen Kaige's Sacrifice. This may have been a rather fortuitous last minute change of plans, for I have never been much of a fan of Kaige's work and its cheap theatrics, and On Tour, a film directed by and starring one of the finest actors working today, in France or elsewhere, Mathieu Amalric, was quite a refreshing surprise. Quite refreshing indeed.
Save for a brief opening that takes place in the states, Amalric's film is set entirely in France, but spoken in both English and French. It is the story of a misfit burlesque troupe touring the small port towns of France under the stern, but ultimately ineffectual leadership of Amalric's mustachioed and tragic has-been show promoter. Mostly acted by unknowns and actual burlesque performers, save for the aforementioned M. Amalric of course, the film has an air of improv to it - much in the same way as do the films of the late great John Cassavetes. The film, as is often the case with films directed by actors, is what one would call an actor's paradise, and even though much of the cast is filled with non-professionals, that descriptive still has some truth in it.
To pinpoint the Cassavetes factor even more, On Tour can be seen as the spiritual brethren of that director's 1976 masterpiece of despair, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and in turn, Amalric can be seen as an equally lost brother-in-arms to Ben Gazzara's strip club maestro in the film. Granted, there are times of dead space in the film, but that is an occupational hazard of someone trying to strip away the gloss of a film down to its Cassavetesesque bare theoretical bones. Overall, these times of dead space amount to very little when compared to the desperate and raw performances Amalric gets out of his troupe - and out of himself, in the finest performance of an already very fine career.
Now the sad part about this intriguing work is the fact that as of this writing it has no US distributor to speak of. On Tour, or Tournée as it is called in its native land, debuted way back at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival (where Amalric was awarded the Best Director prize) and was subsequently released throughout Europe, but as far as the US goes, it has played just twice - at the San Francisco Film Festival back in May and now at the Philly Fest. Whether it gets a US distributor and release is still debatable (the burlesque numbers are quite frank in their sexuality) but here's to hoping it does at some point in 2012.