A film about the art of burlesque would seem to offer up plenty of titillation for the pre-teen set (once they figured out the word’s definition, naturally), but this academically-minded documentary is far from prurient. Instead, A Wink and a Smile, as its title suggests, is an artful, intellectually probative and lightheartedly humorous look at the act of artful undressing. Directed by Deirdre Timmons, the movie plays, for better and for worse, as an affirming, exactingly reasoned piece of feminist agitprop — a women’s studies graduate student film project.
The tension between private yearnings and our seemingly innate desire for and appreciation of public spectacle are at the heart of A Wink and a Smile, which follows 10 “ordinary” women who each for their own reasons decide to do something extraordinary — learn the art of burlesque dancing and striptease. A 51-year-old homemaker, a 35-year-old opera singer, a 23-year-old college student, a 33-year-old taxidermist/bartender and a half dozen other women join the American revival of burlesque, where performance art and showgirl spectacle crash head-over-heels into a on-stage display of glamour and sensuality. Noted performer and instructor Indigo Blue serves as the chief narrator and guide for A Wink and a Smile, and her knowledge of burlesque’s history — from Lydia Thompson and the “British Blonde” invasion of the late 1800s, which typically mocked current stageplays with their routines, to the lavishly costumed sets of burlesque’s so-called Golden Era, in the 1940s and ’50s — roots this title in a very interesting way, and easily delineates the substantive differences between striptease and, well, the sort of working-the-pole ethos of much of modern-day stripping.
In addition to Blue, the other interview subjects are actually almost all articulate as well, and offer a variety of reasons for their interest in learning burlesque. But there’s still a bit of a cloying distance to the entire affair, an emphasis on reason rather than libidinal impulse — a trait most heartily associated with masculinity, granted, but something which I’m told females actually possess as well. Timmons also wastes far too much time on performance pieces by burlesque “professionals” with names like The Shanghai Pearl and Waxy Moon, the latter being a bearded female impersonator. This tack comes across as a desperate attempt to gin up the intellectual bona fides of the film, and takes away from what could be a much more interesting and full-bodied (no pun intended) look at its amateur participant subjects.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, A Wink and a Smile comes to DVD presented in anamorphic widescreen, with an English language 2.0 stereo audio track that more than adequately handles the relatively straightforward aural demands of the title. Special features include an interview clip with Timmons, a burlesque photo gallery and several bonus scenes. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here; to purchase it directly via First Run’s web site, click here. C+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)