Marianne Faithfull has exhibited a wide range of talents in her 61 years, but the one thing she's always known how to do is shock people. So kudos to whoever cast the singer-songwriter-actress as a frumpy London housewife turned sex club worker in "Irina Palm."
Even if there aren't many other reasons to give this contrived and too often silly film a chance, Faithfull (last seen in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette") makes a captivating leading lady. Her worn face and deep voice continue to remind us she's done a lot of hard living in the four decades since she was Mick Jagger's drug-addicted muse. She fills the screen with textures you won't find written in any script. And her natural credibility benefits "Irina Palm" in ways it doesn't deserve.
Directed by Sam Garbarski ("The Rashevski Tango"), who shares writing credit with frequent collaborator Philippe Blasband and Martin Herron ("School for Seduction"), this is a movie composed of one bold idea surrounded by several of cinema's sappiest cliches.
Faithfull plays Maggie, a widow whose dying grandson's only hope is an experimental treatment in far-off Australia, where he and his bickering parents can't afford to go. How on earth can Nana make a big pile of money quickly? She descends into that aforementioned Soho sex club and takes a "hostess" job involving a certain kind of lower-body massage.
The training sessions are both darkly funny and sad. Men stand behind a wall with an opening for their pertinent part, while on the other side Maggie is coached by a jaded colleague (Dorka Gryllus) who advocates a clinical approach to the task. But the new recruit has an old-fashioned soul, and soon her soft, caring touch earns her the stage name Irina Palm, which begins being whispered reverentially by men who don't mind standing in line for her talents.
This pleases hard-hearted club owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic), who turns into a semi-chivalrous softie when he falls for Maggie/Irina. She returns his affection, so you can check off the prostitute-in-love-with-her-pimp cliche, though even Faithfull seems to balk at embracing that ending onscreen.
Despite moody background music and gritty photography suggesting we're in for something raw and revealing, this movie has a hard time getting naked. The filmmakers hide behind camera angles that mask graphic details and confuse tasteful with timid. Truth be told, TV has shown more skin and muscle in "The Sopranos."
"Irina Palm" doesn't deliver on a lot of fronts. But then again it gives us full-on Faithfull, who manages to bare herself completely without ever actually getting undressed. In a film such as this, maybe that's the most shocking thing that could have happened.