I once heard a comedian describe burlesque as just a way for fat girls to feel sexy. This, of course, is terribly reductive. Burlesque doesn’t make anyone sexy who isn’t already. I can’t imagine anyone getting up on stage in a g-string and nipple-tassels without the concrete knowledge that they’re hot stuff, whether their dress size is single digits or double. Rather, it reminds the world that women of all shapes and sizes are sexy, that generous amounts of flesh are actually sexier when strategically covered up. And it says that in this new century, sexiness is a legitimate expression of womanhood, rather than being part of a patriarchically-imposed oppressive structure.
But beyond the most basic facts about burlesque, the spangles and tricks with balloons, I’m pretty unfamiliar with the culture and, I assume huge, personalities it attracts. So it’s with interest and more than a little anticipated titillation that I go to see Tournée, the French equivalent of Hollywood’s embarrassing Cher-featuring treatise on the subject. Unlike Burlesque, Tournée features a collection of genuine stars in the field and so I assume it will present a level of authenticity.
As it turns out, Tournée features a kind of manifesto for New Burlesque, which, as the deliciously curved Dirty Martini tells a blushing French journalist, is about the women, by the women, and for the women. Of course, this was already made patently clear by the director (Mathieu Amalric who also stars as their manager Joachim) when the camera panned away from Martini’s flag-burning act and out to the audience where nine out of ten faces were women. It’s drag without the tucking and padding, but still drowning in red lipstick, metallic eye shadow, and that overlarge image of femininity that can both frighten and arouse. It makes me want to ask Judith Butler what happens when women start performing men performing women for an audience of women. And where does male stripper Rocky Roulette (Alexander Craven) fit in the mix when he’s doing his Louis the XIV, strutting like Bowie on platforms and wrapped in the French flag?
Between the performances, the premise is that Joachim, an emaciated and gloriously mustached failed French promoter, has brought this troop of American Burlesque dancers to his native France. The performers are raunchy and playful both onstage and off, but also have moments of fragility in the face of their alien surroundings. Joachim must also come to terms with what his masculinity means in the face of these awesome creatures, and the humiliations of his former life in France. Like the brilliant Shortbus, Tournée contends that humans have a much more complicated relationship to their sexual desires than we would like to think, that it’s possible to be brassy and powerful but also desire love and companionship.
Thankfully, the movie resists the easy clichés—no one gets mastered and no one softens (except maybe Joachim). The women struggle, not from their moral depravity (in which they revel in the most gentle way possible), but from the loneliness of performance. Being onstage is one thing, but what happens when you’re alone in your dressing room, without the goddess make-up and nipple tassels? As Mimi Le Meaux (played by Miranda Colclasure) points out, sex is actually the easy part. It’s when you get beyond the body that things get complicated.