“I had my little teenage craziness where I wanted to be a doctor, I admit,” Mathieu Demy joked recently. “There was even one point where I considered going to school. Hopefully, I went back on the right track.”
He’s kidding, but with French New Wave pioneers “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” director Jacques Demy and “Cleo from 5 to 7” director Agnes Varda for parents, rebellion would’ve meant the kind of life that so many are already born into. Instead, it could be argued Demy’s most defiant act has been biding his time before fully following in Demy and Varda’s footsteps as a filmmaker, making his directorial debut “Americano” after a 20-year career as an actor.
The perspective would seem to have paid dividends, however, as “Americano” is a film about distance in geographical and emotional terms. Demy stars as Martin, a man who travels from his native France to Los Angeles to execute the wishes of his recently deceased mother, specifically her request to bequeath some of her belongings to a friend (Salma Hayek) who he’s led to believe has become a stripper in a dingy joint called “Americano” in Tijuana. Although the film is hardly biographical in a traditional sense – Martin’s ambivalence in his relationship to his dead mother is paralleled with clips lovingly pulled from Varda’s 1981 drama “Documenteur” to show his upbringing in Los Angeles – it is a dreamy ride down memory lane, full of nods to French New Wave touchstones while Demy reconciles the place of the past in his future both in character and as a filmmaker.
One needs only to look at Demy’s right arm to know how much the film means to him, as the title “Americano” was tattooed upon it for the title sequence and remains there to this day (as one can see above).
“I figured it was a way to tell that he was going to sink into himself to find the solution because this is the logo in the bar, this slightly imaginary place where he finds everything out,” said Demy. “Everything comes together. So it was a way to say we’re entering a tale.”
While Demy was in Los Angeles to premiere “Americano” during the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival in April, he told a few more tales about the ten-year gestation period for his debut, the impact of his parents’ legacy and why it’s important to devour death.
You’ve actually been acting in films for awhile, so what made this the right time for you to direct a feature?
It just took that long because it was quite an important step and it also took a long time to finance and rewrite the script, so it eventually happened when it was ready. And I’m a person that takes a lot of time to do stuff.
Had you felt any pressure given your parents’ notoriety as filmmakers? Did you feel there were expectations you had to contend with?
No, not expectations because that would be silly to try and compare. It’s so different. They have amazing careers and it’s also a very different time frame. The New Wave was really the golden age of French cinema. But I did think that I had to have a point of view upon that, that I couldn’t pretend it didn’t exist. This is why the subject is really related to inheritance and why I wanted to make it personal and link it to my cultural background with the pieces of “Documenteur” because I felt I had to speak about that.
Did your idea for the film start with “Documenteur” or did that creep in as you thought about the story you wanted to tell?
Both. It was two different things. First, [it] was really that story of the road movie and the grief and the guy getting lost in this foreign country. It was Tangier in the first place. I was thinking about that because I was in Tangier when I wrote the first lines of the story and then I had this feeling of unfinished business with “Documenteur” and it’s really when both merged together that the film happened.
We’re in California now, which the place your character Martin revisits his childhood home. What was it like to come back to actual memories you may have had? Did you make any trips before you started production?
I did make a couple of trips before where each time memories would come back and I would finally experience the same thing as Martin in the movie, except I was visiting the place the film was shot in and not the place I was living in. Martin’s a little bit like my avatar in the movie world, so that’s sort of fun to think that way. When I was scouting and preparing, I had the same feelings meeting the people that still remained from that time and seeing the locations. I’m not really a nostalgic person, at least I try not to be. But I like memories. I enjoy the relationship to the past.
I couldn’t help but think the character as a whole, but in particular the dance performed by Salma Hayek’s enigmatic stripper that Martin meets, singing and dancing seductively yet held back by something could’ve been something out of your father’s musicals. Because it’s set to a Rufus Wainwright song “Going to a Town,” it has that feeling of being out of time, not really a part of the past or the present.
The choice of that song is definitely part of the information to make you understand that he projects a lot of what he’s seeing and this place [where she dances], the Americano is both realistic, but it can also be a little bit his interpretation, his fantasy. It’s as much Martin looking for the friend of his mother as Mathieu looking for Lola of his father. I wanted to place this world of the Americano in a halfway fantasy of some kind. The song is part of it because it’s certainly the last song you’d hear at a Tijuana strip club, but the neon logo is also very creative and strange. The choice of that specific song, I think it gave some depth to the character having a dream, wanting to get away from her hometown to achieve a dream in a bigger city, which is very much a Jacques Demy thematic in a way. I just noticed that right now actually.
Were there certain things that came out subconsciously?
I tried to make it personal, but keep it universal, if possible. It’s not art therapy. But I do think I’m more interested in those films where you learn something about the director and share an intimate experience. Everybody can relate to memories being created with photos or when you see photos of your childhood, the memory creates itself around the photo. So I had this footage [from “Documenteur”], which is really my specific case of having filmmaker parents, but everybody knows what I mean when you just open a drawer and see a photo and start remembering.
Once I started to play that game where I was okay with putting some references and playing with that, the interesting thing is that some people tell me references that I hadn’t thought of at all. I did this tale of this guy, he loses his mother and gets lost on the track of a Tijuana stripper. I wanted it to remain simple, but on another level, if you want, if you are interested in French films, you could also find some other stuff there. It’s like a little game, but I really tried to make this work for everybody.
What was also interesting to me is that this guy is inquiring about his mother and it’s more like the mother/prostitute type of duality in the man’s imagination. Someone who is very, very far away from his mother is going to tell him the truth. It’s another person and it’s another country and she’s a prostitute. So that brought me to this character who became a singer and a dancer and a stripper and it struck me, we might as well call her Lola because this would make sense and it would add to the metaphor of the quest because it’s as much Martin looking for the friend of his mother as me looking for the mythology of “Lola,” my father’s first film. It wasn’t Lola in the beginning. [But] this woman having a dream to escape to become a singer, it’s totally “The Young Girls of Rochefort” and I’m comfortable with this because I grew up with his films, so they’re really part of my backbone and my imagination.
What has it been like to take this film around the world?
It’s great to travel and it’s interesting on how people relate in a very different way on the son/mother relationship according to their culture. How do you deal with death? One of the interesting things was to bring that story of grief to Mexico — it’s a little bit in the film, but all this Day of the Dead ceremony is so extraordinary. It’s bigger than life and I thought it would go well with the fact that [Martin] has to [grieve] his way. Compared to French-Catholic funerals that are really, really depressing, the Mexican way to celebrate your dead is truly beautiful, fascinating and very therapeutic. I like the way they eat the dead — like the representation of death that you actually eat, it’s so interesting because this is what you need to do to really grieve. To live through grief, you really have to digest the thing.
“Americano” is now open at the Sunshine Cinema in New York.