In his feature directorial debut, actor Mathieu Demy—son of eminent filmmakers Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda—succumbs to and stumbles beneath the anxiety of influence. Americano, which Demy also wrote and stars in, is an ambivalent, occasionally touching work of homage to his parents, yet one whose clumsiness only underscores the superiority of their directly quoted films.
Playing a Parisian real estate agent in his late thirties named Martin, Demy is introduced mid-shtup with girlfriend Claire (Chiara Mastroianni, the product of Marcello Mastroianni and frequent Jacques Demy lead Catherine Deneuve). Her imperative—“Come”—will be awkwardly echoed in Americano’s final scene. Martin soon receives news of his mother Emilie’s death, which requires him to fly to Los Angeles, her home for the past several decades, to settle her affairs.
As Martin heads to the States, he is flooded with memories of his childhood years living with Emilie in her Venice Beach bungalow—flashbacks culled directly from Demy’s own mother’s Documenteur (1981), a semiautobiographical film starring an eight-year-old Demy and made while Varda was living in Southern California, separated from her husband. This repurposing does Americano little favor: Varda’s portrait of grief and isolation, one of her best yet least-seen works, pierces with its palpable loneliness—a specific kind of soul-sickness that Demy aims to convey through Martin, a character who often just seems callow and rash.
Martin’s incompetence becomes particularly burdensome during a trip to Tijuana, where he is in search of the woman to whom Emilie bequeathed her home: Lola, perhaps a surrogate daughter for his mother, a companion of sorts, or maybe something more. (Varda stars as a disembodied presence in her son’s film, for it is her voice we hear when Martin reads a letter Emilie wrote to Lola.) Driving to Mexico as the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” redundantly plays on the soundtrack, Martin tracks down Lola—a pole-dancing, cheek-scarred, maroon-maîtresse-wig-wearing Salma Hayek—at the strip club of the title. In Americano’s most poorly structured section, Martin will hound Lola for answers, only to be met with outright scorn or sex-worker world-weariness: “I gave up living a long time ago,” is a typical line, made worse by Hayek’s frequently unmodulated delivery.
In the Demy monde, “Lola” is a name of great significance: It is the title of Jacques’s first film, from 1961, starring Anouk Aimée as a cabaret performer in Nantes; Lola/Aimée would reappear in the L.A.-besotted Model Shop (1968), Demy père’s only film made in the U.S. One of cinema’s most unabashed, melancholic dreamers, the elder Demy (who died in 1990) transformed cities into universes, the simplest of emotions into epics. Revisiting his parents’ films, the younger Demy underestimated how much the aura of those works would overshadow his attempt to break away from—while simultaneously honoring—their legacy.