A study of filial loss on an international scale, Mathieu Demy’s debut feature Americano stars the director himself as Martin, a thirty-something dual citizen of France and the U.S. whose estranged mother's death sends him on a transcontinental quest for “Lola,” a childhood friend and his mother’s deported confidante.
The film’s small cast is dominated by the offspring of legends: Geraldine Chaplin as Martin’s loopy adoptive aunt Linda; Chiara Mastroianni (lovechild of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve) as his perhaps-too-long-term girlfriend; and of course the director himself, progeny of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda. Rather than struggle to define himself outside of his parents’ legacy, as a filmmaker Demy embraces his heritage—as Martin eventually does his.
In an interview, Demy attributed his showy casting to geography—each woman an emblem of her nation and its cinema. Chaplin, Mastroianni, and Salma Hayek as Lola embody three aesthetics toured in this art-house road movie: Chiara, the oceanic blue of Parisian ennui; Geraldine, the searing sunlight of California; and Salma, the rainbow fluorescence and shade of Tijuana.
The formidable cast encourages viewers to read the film in light of its forebears. Lola’s character is candidly inherited from (Jacques) Demy’s 1961 Lola, while a cabaret number, a striptease rendition of Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town [Tired of America],” provides a bleak homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (although, to some, Hayek’s post-dubbed drawl may be more reminiscent of Madeline Kahn croaking “I’m So Tired” in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles). Mathieu also borrows footage of himself at age 8 from his mother’s 1981 film Documenteur to serve as Martin’s forgotten memories, which return to him as flashes of mind’s-eye home videos.
One can’t help but search for the autobiographical in Americano as Martin works through his anger toward both parents. But at core the film remains a sentimental meditation on grief with a thriller-style twist at the finish—i.e., fiction. If not wish fulfillment: Hayek’s redeemable whore sports a pink wig that echoes Julia Roberts’s bob in Pretty Woman, and cross-cutting between exotic fish-netted flesh and memories of Martin’s mother unsubtly realize Oedipal fantasies.
Bereft of levity, the film mourns with Martin, whose handsome face (suggesting a lumpy-nosed, francophone Robert Pattinson) is for the most part as placid as his monotone. He speaks with the unforgiving deadpan of someone both suffering a confounding loss and speaking a foreign language (English in Demy’s case).
In a rare ray of wit, a Tijuanan tween describes Martin’s Mustang as a “Flash McQueen car,” as in Lightning McQueen of Cars. “You mean Steve McQueen?” Martin puzzles—a charming nod to the generation gap between cinephilic references past and present.