Mathieu Demy, son of filmmakers Agnès Varda and the late Jacques Demy, makes an ambitious, even audacious feature directorial debut with “Americano.” The story concerns Martin (Demy), a Parisian with an American passport flying to Los Angeles to handle his later mother Emilie’s estate.
Martin and Emilie are characters from Varda’s 1981 film “Documenteur.” In that film, the then eight-year-old Demy played Martin, who searched for a home in Los Angeles with his mother, Emilie. In “Americano,” Demy continues Martin’s story, and he skillfully incorporates clips from “Documenteur” to create Martin’s “memories” from his childhood.
It may sound like a solipsistic stunt — picking up the life of a character he played in his real-life mother’s film to tell a story about the death of his fictional character’s mother — but it pays off handsomely. By creating a quasi-sequel to “Documenteur,” Demy adds a poignant dimension to Martin’s story about finding “home” and re-inventing himself.
It is particularly affecting to watch the distraught Martin, with his hangdog expression, rummaging through his mother’s apartment. He finds photographs that trigger memories and feelings of abandonment. He experiences an indelible sense of grief one character calls “reactional depression.” These are universal qualities — and nicely portrayed in such an obviously personal film.
“Americano” does not focus exclusively on dysfunctional family drama, however. Demy also positions his film as a twist on the road movie genre, in which the main character leaves home to find himself.
After Martin arrives in Los Angeles, he makes two discoveries — one that his mother was a painter and the other that she kept in touch with his childhood friend Lola. These revelations, along with his mother’s will that leaves Lola her house, lead Martin to Tijuana, where the second half of the film unfolds.
In the first act of “Americano,” Martin is in careful control of his emotions, but he turns impassioned in the Mexican sequence. He needs to find Lola (Salma Hayek) in order to understand why his mother perhaps loved her more than him.
Lola, who works in a seedy — though possibly once high-class — strip club called “Americano,” is an enigmatic woman. Approached by Martin, she adamantly responds that she refuses to live in the past, as she argues he does, and shows more interest in his money than in the reasons for his sudden appearance.
As Martin tries time and again to connect with his childhood friend — spending money to talk with her at the club and tracking her down on her off hours — “Americano” may exasperate some viewers. He loses his car, his money, and even his dignity, as well as a good measure of the patience we might otherwise be willing to extend him. But Martin is grieving and he is also obsessed, and anyone able to empathize with him will find his descent to rock bottom oddly cathartic. Even if the film risks seeming ludicrous as Martin sinks into crushing despair, there is something fascinating about his journey.
This is in part because Demy goes so deep into his performance. His broken English and facial expressions affectingly convey the bewilderment and innocence he brings to his encounters in Mexico. When Martin parks a vintage 1966 cherry red Mustang convertible (which he has “borrowed”) on the streets of Tijuana one night, only he seems surprised it is missing the next day. Martin is a character who does not know how to ask the questions despite the urgency of his search for answers. Demy plays this guileless character expertly, conveying sincerity even in Martin’s most inept moments.
Hayek’s Lola proves an apt foil for Martin. Her entrance is a dazzling lip-synched routine that shows the enduring allure of a facially scarred, money-hungry prostitute. Martin is unable to convince her he can change her life, but she is happy to take his money as he tries. Hayek is utterly convincing in her role, exuding an appropriate mix of sleazy toughness and vulnerability.
Some viewers may judge “Americano” a curious misfire, but Demy’s film offers puzzling layers to enjoy. Surely it is no coincidence that Demy casts Chiara Mastroianni as his character’s girlfriend, Claire. Mastroianni’s mother, Catherine Deneuve, starred in Demy’s father’s celebrated film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” And “Lola” was the title of another of père Demy’s most famous films.
Young Demy also casts another famous filmmaker’s offspring, Geraldine Chaplin, as Emilie’s best friend, Linda. Showing up in the Mustang convertible to meet Martin in LA, Chaplin wears a neck brace and an LA Dodgers baseball cap. She speaks rapidly and hysterically about Emilie, oblivious to Martin’s grief. It is a wacky, dizzying moment in a wonderfully offbeat film full of such oddball scenes.
AMERICANO | Directed by Mathieu Demy | MPI Pictures | Opens Jun. 15 |Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema | 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarktheatres.com