This movie is Robert Altman's musical/dance film. It has many elements of a conventional musical/dance film (e.g., 42nd STREET) -- the dancer who's injured the night of the performance, backstage romantic betrayals, and a passionate, driven director -- but nothing here happens quite the way we'd expect. The betrayal takes place before the movie's narrative even begins; the passionate, driven director isn't a hard-drinking chain smoker (when we first see him, he's eating a salad); and the injured-dancer crisis is handled as a matter of routine -- twice -- with drama, but without melodramatics.
Just like in jazz, where classic themes (such as "My Funny Valentine") can be endlessly updated and ever-interesting, so Altman plays upon variations of themes found in the musical/dance film. Altman even does this to the film's main musical theme, which happens to be "My Funny Valentine" itself (which is performed by Chet Baker, Elvis Costello, and the Kronos Quartet -- amongst others). The theme serves as a metaphor for the love affair between Ry and her boyfriend -- which in turn serves as a metaphor for Antonelli's love of dance, which can then be seen as a metaphor for Altman's own love of film.
Just listen to the lyrics: "You look so laughable, unphotographable, but you're my favorite work of art."
Just as Antonelli looks for something outside of "phony, lyrical ballet", so does Altman look for something outside of phony, "well-crafted" film making. This aspect of Ry's new boyfriend is what she finds so appealing in him. He's not a dancer. While her fellow company member friends gracefully perform dance moves even while doing something so common as bowling, he, however, falls flat on his face. Both of them are injured on-the-job. They each are perfect through their imperfections; and it's these imperfections that they ultimately find fascinating.
Anybody who knows Altman knows that accidents and imperfections are what fascinates him. He often says about directing, "How can I tell the performers what I want to see, when what I want to see is something I've never seen before." To Altman, mistakes are more interesting than things that happen just as expected.
I've noticed that there are a lot of people who missed this point in the film. Maybe they would be more happy with the "phony, lyrical ballet".
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