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Movie Review

A Wink and a Smile

Empowerment in a burlesque class

A Wink and a Smile (Marcus Donner/First Run Features)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 17, 2009

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“A Wink and a Smile’’ is a documentary about burlesque. Not your grandfather’s burlesque, that smoky pre-strip club world of the 1940s and ’50s, where performers disrobed one white glove at a time. More like your older-sister’s-with-a-graduate-degree-in-gender-studies burlesque.

As such, the movie can be a bit of a drag: an earnest peek at Seattle’s modern Burl-E-Q theater scene that almost but not quite sucks the lowdown dirty fun out of it. First-time director Deirdre Timmons has a theory and she sticks to it: It’s that performers like Miss Indigo Blue and the Shanghai Pearl have reclaimed the art of peeling from the male gaze and offer it to other women as a tool of empowerment and renewed self-esteem.

Indigo Blue, in fact, runs a six-week boot camp for novice burlesque performers, 10 of whom the filmmaker meets. They’re a motley bunch with engagingly varied curves and hopes, from an opera singer who wants to connect with her audience to a former bulimic to a50-something mom who hopes “to bring back the beauty of the sagging breast.’’ Most of them are in disagreement with their bodies; a few, like the virgin sexology major, seem rather lost.

Blue coaches them in creating stage personas, honing their acts, finding the courage to express themselves through outré theatricality. The women are exposing more than skin, of course, and at its best “A Wink and a Smile’’ gets at the ways building a false front can help one find one’s true self. Many of the students seem to come away stronger people; the ones who don’t at least have had a blast.

Timmons cuts away from the class at regular intervals to show some of the scene’s leading stars doing their thing. The stage names are baroque - Inga Ingenue, Kitten La Rue, the Swedish Housewife - and the wigs and acts even more so. “A Wink and a Smile’’ dives into cross-gender “boy-lesque’’ and cross-cross-gender drag, the latter in the form of Ernie Von Schmaltz, an obese male greaser played by a petite female performer.

Some of these artists are revelatory: Lily Verlaine’s paint-spattered “Picasso piece’’ is the naughtiest thing here but also the most weirdly moving. If only Timmons and Indigo Blue didn’t feel the need to - sigh - explain everything. Blue knows her burlesque history and is highly articulate about how the form can play peekaboo with a performer’s sexuality by playfully exaggerating and masking it. Her commentary, and that of the movie as a whole, falls into jargon, though - the dour academic buzzwords of women’s studies appropriated to defend camp pleasure. It may be that what’s happening here is too profound for language, in which case Timmons should have tried a different approach.

Missing, too, is any sense of an audience. Who’s watching, and who’s meant to be? We hear some guys cheering during the performances, but by and large “A Wink and a Smile’’ says the sisters (and a few brothers) are doing it for themselves, and that’s more than a little disingenuous. The movie’s still recommended for feminists, queer theorists, impressionable theater majors, and fans of extreme costuming. Male viewers looking for some simple hubba-hubba-hey, on the other hand, are hereby redirected to the nearest strip club. The theorists should be getting around to those in another 30 years.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

A WINK AND A SMILE Written and directed by: Deirdre Timmons

Starring: Miss Indigo Blue, the Shanghai Pearl, Lily Verlaine, Waxie Moon

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through Sept. 27

Running time: 91 minutes

Unrated (as R: nudity, gender provocation, high-minded ecdysiasm)

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