When you’re the son of not one but two legendary filmmakers, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. Mathieu Demy, the son of French New Wave icons Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda, has earned a solid reputation as a performer. Despite literally having grown up on film sets, he makes his feature debut well into his late 30’s, offering a reinterpretation of his parents’ films while at the same time trying to examine the state of American power and cultural influence on the world — a popular theme of his parents’ generation that still resonates today. It’s an undertaking both ambitious and understated, ranging from the intensely personal to the broadly political. Though not always successful, Americano shows promise for Demy’s future.
Martin (Demy) is closing in on middle age and works in real estate in Paris. The film opens like Albert Camus’s The Stranger, with Martin learning of his mother’s death; unlike Camus’ Meursault, Demy’s Martin is literally knocked out by the news. Martin goes to his mother’s adopted hometown, Los Angeles, to sort out her estate and sell her apartment with the help of her one eccentric friend Linda (Geraldine Chaplin). In the course of his journey, Martin learns of his mother’s friendship with a girl named Lola he played with as a child. His search for her leads him to Tijuana, where he discovers Lola (Salma Hayek) working as a stripper and prostitute in a sleazy cantina called the Americano.
The looming of the parental shadow over the film is apparent from the beginning. The character of Lola reflects the title character of Jacques Demy’s film of the same name, a cabaret dancer and mother, while Martin’s own character is a projection of the “character” he played in Agnes Varda’s Documenteur, which itself is the source of the flashback sequences of Martin as a child intercut throughout the film. The idea seeps into the character of Martin, whose Freudian neuroses rests on his expressed fears that his mother never loved him. There is also an inverted Oedipal relationship that fuels his suspicion that his mother may have had a lesbian relationship with Lola, the girl of his childhood crush. Even the use of the cast seems to suggest this notion of failing to live up to one’s parents, with both Mastroianni and Chaplin also being the progeny of legitimate film icons (Marcello and Charlie). For good measure, Demy also throws in the perpetually sotted son of an ex-Nazi beer manufacturer to show how the parental legacy can linger in the present day.
What’s ultimately more interesting than its psychology is the films social critique. This often takes a more subtle form, such as Martin ducking out of the long “foreigners” line at customs to use his American passport, with the agent offering an ironic “welcome home” after a security hand scan. In the same scene, a Latino family sits sobbing, presumably caught in immigration limbo or, perhaps, pre-deportation. Linda’s classic Mustang convertible also serves as a potent symbol of the decline of America, power and promise encapsulated in its fusing of form and function. Yet, as Pedro (Pablo Garcia), the child who serves as Martin’s untrustworthy guide in Tijuana points out, the car is missing a crucial piece, failing to live up to its potential. This idea is reflected in the story of Lola Sanchez, who turns out to be a victim of the broken promise of the American dream in both her incarnations. Still, the film ends on a hopeful note: with a possible future for Pablo, and Martin overcoming his psychological bonds of immaturity.