In his debut feature, Americano, writer-director Mathieu Demy casts himself as Martin, a brooding French real estate agent who travels to Los Angeles after his long-estranged mother dies. He plans to sell her apartment quickly — until he finds a letter in which she promises to leave the place to a friend, Lola. Martin can't locate the woman, but hears she may be in Tijuana.
Several aspects of this scenario should pique the interest of cinephiles. Demy is the child of filmmakers Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda, and Americano pays tribute to both. The older Demy's first feature was 1961's Lola, although his son's movie owes more to Model Shop, the 1969 sort-of-sequel in which the elusive Lola, formerly a dancer, surfaces in L.A. as a pinup girl for hire.
Demy's parents lived off and on in Venice Beach, where Varda made a 1981 film, Documenteur, starring the 8-year-old Mathieu as a boy named Martin. Clips from that movie appear in Americano, representing Martin's memories of his mother, from whom he was separated when he was about 8.
Americano opens with the sounds of sex — a moment of intimacy in the increasingly distant relationship of Martin and girlfriend Claire. (She's played by Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Deneuve, who starred in the elder Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). The impassive Martin claims to have few childhood memories; in fact when word of his mother's death arrives, he initially resists traveling to L.A. to settle her affairs.
His father insists, so Martin goes, using a U.S. passport that's part of his maternal legacy. He's met at the airport by his mother's friend Linda (Geraldine Chaplin), a French-speaking chatterbox who doesn't want to talk about Lola. Martin and Linda don't click. When the sight of his mother's body causes him to flee, Martin take off in Linda's vintage red Mustang convertible.
He drives it to Tijuana, where a seemingly motherless boy — about the age Martin was when he stopped living with his mother — takes him to the address on that letter to Lola. The site turns out to be the Americano, a strip club and brothel where Martin meets a woman (Salma Hayek) who might be his mother's friend. She first appears on stage, writhing to Rufus Wainwright's "Going to a Town," whose refrain echoes the locals' opinion of gringo tourists: "I'm so tired of you, America."
Like her Model Shop namesake, this Lola doesn't chat with customers for free. Martin has to pay for each conversation, and he becomes desperate when his dollars run low. He's trying to help Lola, but she's suspicious. The club's manager, Luis (Carlos Bardem), doesn't make exceptions, and Lola warns that he can be violent.
Wearing little but a nasty scar on one cheek, Hayek offers one of her grittiest performances. Her Lola is Martin's opposite: driven, practical, unromantic. She can't allow herself the existential funk indulged by Demy's character, who's such a drip that even French-cinema devotees may tire of him.
The final act ventures into thriller territory, not altogether convincingly. But the film's appeal has less to do with plot than mood. Demy balances his father's romanticism and his mother's naturalism, taking cues from both. (These include musical ones; the score echoes, sometimes literally, Documenteur's impressionist piano and Model Shop's L.A. rock.)
Americano won't free the younger Demy from his famous parents' shadows, but that's thematically appropriate. Ultimately, this childhood-haunted tale is about a self-centered man who finally realizes he was never the crux of mom and dad's lives.