Monday, 12 September 2011

Strip-Tease (1963)

Strip-Tease (Sweet Skin) is a movie totally dominated by its star. Nico (billed in this movie as Krista Nico) had already achieved international success as a model and has appeared in several movies, most notably playing herself in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. She would of course achieve much greater fame a few years later singing with the Velvet Underground and would become a somewhat legendary figure before her death in 1988.

Most of her movie appearances were in experimental features such as Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. Strip-Tease was by comparison much closer to being a mainstream movie. While the title suggests an exploitation movie this is a movie that takes itself fairly seriously.

Ariane (Nico) is a dancer in Paris who has finally got her big break, only to see it snatched away from her when a big name dancer is brought in at the last moment. Disillusioned, she abandons ballet. She is broke when she runs into an old acquaintance. Berthe, after changing her name to Dodo Voluptuous, has been making big money as a stripper. She suggests that Ariane might consider this as a career. Dodo has now married strip club owner Paul and he is willing to give Ariane her opportunity.

Paul comes up with an act for her. Since she’s so stiff and nervous she will play the part of a wooden puppet, stripping along with an actual puppet. Ariane’s first performance is almost a disaster when she loses her nerve but luckily Paul’s strip club is rather up-market and arty and the audience thinks her reluctance to shed her clothes is part of the act. She is hailed as a kind of genius of avant-garde performance-art strip-tease (this is Paris after all).

She is still not entirely comfortable in her new life. Her best friend is a black jazz/blues musician who runs a club named Sam’s. He is played by Big Joe Turner, in real life a legendary blues singer. He’s a kind of father figure to her, and tries to persuade her that the price for hew new-found success is too high.

When an old boyfriend is shocked to discover her new profession she defends herself by saying that she doesn’t take much off. He accuses her of hypocrisy, and after thinking about it she decides he’s right. That night she does her first full-fledged strip.

Ariane has meanwhile attracted the attention of wealthy playboy Jean-Loup. He is idle, fabulously wealthy, extravagant, pretentious and good-looking. She is drawn into an affair with him, but she will soon find out what he really thinks of her and she will have to decide what she now thinks of herself.

This is one of those sexy arty rather serious French films of that era that could easily end up taking itself too seriously for its own good. Surprisingly though it works rather well. The moody black-and-white cinematography and the atmosphere of sin, glamour, decadence, art and style makes for a fairly entertaining movie.

Even more surprisingly perhaps, its biggest strength is Nico’s acting. As you’d expect, given her later image, she’s mysterious and oddly detached but this works in her favour. She is playing an outsider, a woman who feels rather detached from her own life. She is of course a foreigner as well, a German in Paris, a kind of exile.

And of course she has that extraordinary exotic beauty.

The music is a highlight as well. Serge Gainsbourg not only wrote the music but also makes a cameo appearance. The title song was originally recorded by Nico herself, being in fact her first ever recording, but at the last moment it was decided to substitute a version sung by Juliette Greco.

This was the early 60s so there isn’t a huge amount of flesh on display although by 1963 standards it was pretty racy.

Mondo Macabro have done a fine job with the widescreen transfer and as usual they have provided some worthwhile extras.

A well-made movie, worth seeing for the atmosphere of early 60s Paris, for the music, and for Nico’s odd but effective performance.


MondoHeather said...

Very good article. I have wanted to see this for years, so seeing it get released by Mondo Macabro is exciting. I adore Nico.

Lars Andreasson said...

I liked the article very much, having discovered the movie from a YouTube-clip, where the final scenes have been edited as a really appealing music video for the song "Why not your baby" by Dillard & Clark.

However, you and almost everybody else who write about this film has got one fact wrong. The american musician playing the character Sam is not the singer Big Joe Turner, but the pianist Joe Turner. His performance in the final scenes is a joy to watch!