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Somewhat ahead of its time, Strip-tease plays like a more risqué version of Julie Christie's Darling, without the Jet Set trappings. Nico (billed as Krista Nico) plays Ariane, a hard-working dancer in a legit revue show. She's just about to enjoy a well-earned starring role when her producer tells her that she must return to the chorus line -- a partner with fresh money wants an established star. Ariane quits and quietly burns through her bank account, until she's told that she can no longer attend dancing workout classes. That's when she bumps into old friend Berthe (Dany Saval of Disney's Moon Pilot), who suggests that Ariane take up stripping. Berthe was famous as "Dodo Voluptuous" until she married the boss and retired. Ariane eventually tries stripping, and has a difficult time in rehearsals. What looks like a disastrous first performance works when the customers think that Ariane's discomfort is part of the act. Ariane is soon performing 'art' acts, and becomes a leading star. She resists the advances of a rich playboy, who attempts to 'buy' Ariane in several ways before finally simply approaching her in an honest way. They become lovers and a highly visible celebrity couple. The relationship founders when the playboy uses Nico as part of a power play to get his family to subsidize his freewheeling lifestyle indefinitely -- if he promises not to marry a notorious tart like the stripper Ariane.
Strip-tease may have an exploitative veneer, but it's a legit character study of a showgirl. As a high-style stripper Ariane gains fame and notoriety yet sacrifices her social standing. Her former serious dancing colleagues regard what she's doing as they would jumping off a cliff. A headliner in a "hot club", there are many places where Ariane will not be welcome. She just wants a life and relationships and a loving partner, but that's all too much to ask.
Filmed in velvety B&W and directed with assurance by Jacques Poitrenaud, Strip-tease has a pleasing Paris setting and a convincing strip club atmosphere, where a roster of exotic dancers do their thing. We do see plenty of nudity, although individual strip numbers are abbreviated. Making the club atmosphere work is the animated Dany Saval, as a charming gossip and outspoken cheerleader for the art of the strip-tease. Berthe encourages Ariane to loosen up and enjoy what she's doing. What happens instead is that Ariane becomes a sort of moving mannequin. Nico is physically perfect and possessed of porcelain-quality skin; sometimes she looks positively unreal. 1
Nico is the best thing about Strip-tease but also something of a liability. She moves with confidence but tends toward a somnambulistic acting style. When in doubt the movie cuts back to her staring, sometimes looking conflicted but more often just posing neutrally. In many shots she looks quite a bit like Marisa Mell's one-dimensional comic book beauty in Danger: Diabolik. The dialogue is convincing and the movie sets up Ariane's character changes quite well. But what we doesn't have is an actress that can carry a standard role ... Nico's Ariane is at the center of everything and reacts to the lively supporting characters, letting her "unearthly allure" (an accurate statement from the package text) do the heavy lifting. Her main "conscience" is a wise jazz pianist played by Big Joe Turner, an American with a charming accent in French. He's a cliché, but also a pleasant personality and a big plus for the picture. Later in the '60s, the cliché will include non-threatening gay confidantes that the sexy leading lady can come to when life gets too much to face. I'm thinking specifically of the harsh Jacqueline Bisset vehicle The Grasshopper.
The news these days is celebrating the life of French songwriter and lover Serge Gainsbourg, whose spirit is all over Strip-tease. Gainsbourg provides some of the music, is seen on-screen playing piano and is probably responsible for a brief cameo by songstress Juliette Greco.
Ariane's story is basically rather formulaic. Her rich boyfriend tries to sweep her off her feet with ostentatious gifts, which she throws back in his face. All she wants is some sincere words of love and a little commitment, but what she gets is glamorous nights in casinos, on a private barge in the Seine, etc. Strip-tease at least has the good sense not to sell us a tragedy -- at the finish we can see that Ariane will keep going in one way or another.
Mondo Macabro's DVD of Strip-tease looks great -- it's said to be sourced from the original negative and looks clean and well-defined. The disc comes with two lengthy (and somewhat rambling) interviews with two men who knew Nico in her later career, biographer Richard Witts and musician Lutz Ulbrich.
I hadn't noticed lately, but Mondo Macabro's previews click off literally every DVD release ever by the label, right on back to the early days and Mill of the Stone Women. The musical montage is overpoweringly gross!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Frankly, some of the strip acts where Ariane stares straight ahead as if hypnotized, remind us of the haunted main character of Eyes Without a Face. Jules Borkon produced that film as well, and used the same editor.
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T'was Ever Thus.