The Next Generation, by Rita Cannon
The main theme of Americano is inheritance, both literal and figurative. It’s the feature directing debut of Mathieu Demy, the son of French film legends Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, and while it might seem a hefty theme for another first-time director to tackle, for Demy it feels natural, and maybe even necessary. The film’s protagonist, played by Demy himself, feels a need to free himself from questions about his past in order to get on with his life. Likewise, Americano seems like Demy’s way of saying, “Yes, these are who my parents are. I know it, you know it. Let’s talk about it now and get it out of the way so I can make my own movies.”
Demy’s fictional analogue, Martin, lives in Paris with his girlfriend Claire (Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of 8 ½ star Marcello). He has a successful career in real estate, but he and Claire are at an impasse about having a child – she wants one, he isn’t so sure. Then Martin hears that the mother he’s been estranged from for years has died, and he’s given the task of flying from Paris to Los Angeles to settle her affairs, including selling her apartment and bringing her body back to France to be buried.
This first chapter of the film – Martin exploring the city he was born in but barely remembers, and talking to locals who know more about his mother than he ever did – is intriguing, funny, sad, and nuanced. It’s also punctuated by flashbacks to Martin’s childhood, which are actually cleverly repurposed footage from Documenteur, a 1981 film by Varda starring a 9-year-old Mathieu Demy. Martin has long been haunted by questions about his mother and her life, and the chance to get them answered seems to both fascinate and frighten him. So when he hears of a mysterious woman named Lola (Salma Hayek) – a much younger friend of his mother’s, to whom she apparently intended to leave her house – he sets out on a mission to find her.
Martin’s desperation to find Lola seems motivated as much by jealousy as anything else. Who is this stranger, and why did she get to have the close relationship with his mother that he never did? When he finds her working at a seedy strip club in Tijuana, their dynamic gets even more complicated, not to mention distinctly sexual.
I will save you the trouble and explain that, because this is a movie, Lola is not what she seems, and because he’s in Tijuana, Martin swiftly descends into a druggy black hole of sexual obsession and harassment by violent thugs. The fact that Lola is not who she claims is obvious from the start (more so to the audience than to the absurdly gullible Martin), and while a certain amount of his pursuit of her can be chalked up to curiosity, an urge to escape his morbid duties in Los Angeles, and the desire to have sex with someone who looks like Salma Hayek, there is a point at which his motivations for anything that he does get completely lost. The further Martin goes down the rabbit hole, the less we understand about why he doesn’t just go home. If he’s really coming apart at the seams like his actions suggest, then more of that needs to come across, either in Demy’s performance or in some other aspect of the film.
Americano is compelling in places, and gorgeous-looking all the way through. But what starts as an absorbing meditation on one man’s struggle with his personal heritage soon dissolves into something else, and the second thing is a lot less interesting.