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PARIS (Reuters) - Mathieu Amalric leads a troupe of veteran burlesque dancers on a rambling road movie through the backwaters of France in "On Tour", his debut as director in the main competition at the Cannes film festival.
The former Bond villain from "Quantum of Solace" plays a raffish impresario trying to keep the show on the road while the money runs out and his unruly company of showgirls ask when they will finally get to Paris.
Inspired by a memoir from the French writer Colette, who worked as a music hall actress in the early years of last century, Amalric based the film around the striptease revivalists of the "New Burlesque" movement who recreate acts of the 1940s and 50s.
"When I met them, I had the feeling that we could create a fiction, disorder, disobedience, politics without having to transmit a message," he told a news conference at Cannes.
The anarchic verve of the girls highlights the unreliability of Amalric's character Joachim Zand as he tries to maintain the illusion of control in the face of constant reminders from the artistes that "it's not your show".
"Dirty Martini", "Mimi Le Meaux" and the other artistes rework and subvert the conventions of "gentlemen's entertainment", flaunting their tattoos, false eyelashes and sagging flesh outrageously.
The real-life performers play rough versions of themselves, snagging occasional lovers and going through a series of numbers along the way.
"I think a lot of women were very frustrated with how they were portrayed in society. Like punk rock they decided to buck the system," said "Dirty Martini" (aka Linda Marraccini), one of the pioneers of the "New Burlesque" movement.
"I wanted to keep that alive, especially for the women in the 40s and 50s who did not get the respect that they deserved," she said.
Zand -- a chainsmoking former television presenter with a mustache, a lot of furious enemies and two fractious boys -- cuts a harried figure as he steers his charges from one anonymous provincial hotel to another.
Never quite able to answer why they must trek around towns like Le Havre, La Rochelle or Toulon rather than head for the bright lights of Paris, Joachim alternates between affection and bouts of frustrated rage as his problems mount.
As an actor, Amalric has won acclaim for roles as varied as a man unable to move or speak in Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or an indecisive graduate student in "My sex life...or how I got into an argument" by Arnaud Desplechin.
But as a director, he felt a heavier responsibility, forcing himself to go to bed early and avoid the uninhibited atmosphere between the cast and crew on set.
"I was almost ashamed to be so serious, I was afraid they'd take me for a priest," he said. "Someone has to do it so the others can have fun but still..."
Editing by Paul Casciato