STRIP CLUBS are Montreal’s accidental trademark. Though hardly unique, the sheer quantity is striking. On a certain stretch of Ste-Catherine St., they’re almost wall to wall, selling alcohol and cheap thrills. Yet original portraits of exotic dancers are hard to come by, the pervasive “stripper with a heart of gold” archetype being all too easy for screenwriters, directors and actresses to fall back on. This makes Montreal-based filmmaker Guylaine Dionne’s latest feature, Waitresses Wanted, all the more remarkable. She doesn’t stop at stereotypes.
The film opens with a montage of young, beautiful and multicultural faces, proving that the strip club might be the best place to see Canada’s cultural mosaic in practice. In voiceover, we hear fragments of their stories: names, stage aliases, ages (which range from fourteen to twenty-five), countries of origin and under what circumstances they came to Canada—as maids, students, babysitters, or in response to a newspaper ad that read “waitresses wanted.” Inevitably, their visas have run out, leaving them with no alternative but the one profession that never turns away a pretty face.
Once this broad opening stakes out the film’s thematic territory, Waitresses Wanted locks its focus onto a single woman: Priscilla (played by newcomer Janaina Suaudeau), a 22-year-old Brazilian immigrant who reluctantly takes up a position at Club L’Elixir after her student visa expires. At L’Elixir, she meets Milagro (played by Clara Furey, who also co-choreographed the dancing in the film), a captivating and complex woman whose allure belies the trashiness of the gold American Apparel tube top that she (briefly) wears onstage. The remainder of the film concerns the relationship between these two leads while issues of immigration, family and climate weave in and out of focus.
The plot, however, takes a definite backseat to Dionne’s nuanced exploration of character. An exercise in substance over style, the film approaches its subjects naturalistically, allowing symbolic meaning to emerge organically. A good example of this can be seen in the flocks of pigeons that are sometimes used as a means of transitioning between scenes. While the pigeons remind the viewer of an authentic Montreal winter, they also subtly mirror the plight of illegal immigrants like Priscilla: both are viewed as pests, plagues upon society that must fly from perch to perch just to avoid their own extermination. Montreal songstress Martha Wainwright also lends the film a beautiful acoustic score that ups the emotional ante without resorting to manipulation. Similarly, the scenes in Club L’Elixir deliver eroticism without sliding into exploitation.
It might be true that female friendships, like the one presented in this film, can more easily transgress the norms of homo-sociality without necessarily crossing over into explicitly sexualized territory (through, as in Thelma and Louise, some audiences are sure to read a subtext that the film neither confirms nor denies). A scene in which Milagro gently guides Priscilla through the standard stripper repertoire plays with equal parts sensuality and sweetness. It’s almost like watching the playtime of two twelve-year-old best friends preparing a dance recital for their parents. When Priscilla bathes an ailing Milagro, the mood is less erotic than motherly.
Characters evolve, grow up, and are forced to make difficult decisions; but even as the film strikes its final, bittersweet notes, the viewer will simultaneously feel the weight of ambiguity and the satisfaction of closure. It’s a tough tightrope walk for any filmmaker—especially in stiletto heels.
WAITRESSES WANTED is playing in French with English subtitles at the AMC Forum 22 and without subtitles at Beaubien, Boucherville, Méga-Plex Point Viau 16, Quartier Latin and Starcité Montréal.