Overexposed

Film - Philip Kerr on what happens when women take their clothes off

It seems that every time I open the Daily Telegraph or Tatler these days, there is a feature about how some brainless bimbo with a rich daddy "learnt" how to lap-dance in aid of some half-baked novel or Channel 4 documentary. Things have got so bad at Stringfellow's that you can't go in there without seeing someone on stage that you know. Call me old-fashioned, but somehow it just doesn't feel right to hand over 20 quid for a private dance from someone with whom you have played mixed doubles at the Vanderbilt, or trodden down a few divots at Smiths Lawn. If the article I read in the Telegraph is to be believed, it's rather exciting to get your kit off and wiggle your bottom in a strange man's face. It seems that women - the women who read and write the Telegraph anyway - enjoy the feeling of having power over men. Gee, as if this was something new. Haven't they heard of the story of Salome?

Of course, the professional dancers at places like Stringfellow's and Spearmint Rhino are none too pleased about these enthusiastic amateurs, and have successfully petitioned Westminster Council that they might be legally permitted to remove their G-strings in order to discourage the ladies who louche from dropping more than their airs and graces. It's one thing taking your bra off and prancing around in a bit of dental floss. It's another thing altogether to open up a school for amateur gynaecologists. With the release of Dancing at the Blue Iguana however, I fear that the sacrifices of these professional dancers will have been in vain. For in Michael (Il Postino) Radford's film about LA lap-dancers, names as well known as Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly and Sandra Oh have shown us a lot more than just their acting talent; and I can foresee dozens more women feeling up to dropping their drawers in the cause of a double-page spread (if you'll pardon the expression) in Harpers & Queen, or a programme on Radio 4. Can it be long before we see Ainsley Harriott presenting Celebrity Ready Steady Strip?

This is kind of Pulp Fiction for women, since it concentrates on the interwoven lives of five of the dancers. There's really not much violence to speak of, just a lot of emotion, bitchiness, no-good men, and disappointment. I wanted to dislike this film, not least because the screenplay is based on improvisational workshops, which all sounds a bit too Lee Strasberg for me.

In my experience, when actors have an idea about the script, it usually proves that they haven't read it properly. But instead of disliking it, I found the film's situations and dialogue often very funny. What is more, there is a wealth of excellent acting in this movie, with Daryl Hannah turning in a performance of surprising pathos and subtlety in what is perhaps her best ever role. OK, I know that's not saying very much if you've seen Splash and Wall Street, but she's really very good. Honest.

But there is one other actress who would be worth the price of admission alone, and she is Sandra Oh, who plays Jasmine, a Chinese-American stripper who writes poetry and attends writer's workshops. When the leader of the workshop compliments her work, a relationship develops between the two which looks doomed from the outset; the scene where, having been bullied into standing up her new boyfriend for a gig at the Blue Iguana - the name of the lap-dancing club - Jasmine reads some of her work to an equally sad and lonely porn starlet is very, very good, perhaps the best in the movie. Looking at Oh's tear-stained face, a picture of miserable beauty, I felt I could have been looking at Edgar Degas's wonderful painting L'Absinthe, a portrait of the actress Ellen Andree staring bleakly over the top of her opalescent glass.

None of the girls in this movie has a happy life. All are emotionally damaged by their addictions, and the disappointed aspirations so typical of West Hollywood. And if I do have a criticism of this otherwise excellent film, it is this: that the movie - created not from the pen of a perhaps better-informed writer, but from the prejudices and bourgeois preconceptions of a cast of actors and actresses - merely confirms a common stereotype of the working girl. (Oddly enough, the characters of the men who run the club are not nearly as cliched.) I suspect that for every lap-dancer who is an alcoholic or a drug addict, you will find three or four who have husbands and mortgages. The mass of these women, I am sure, lead lives that are full of no more lonely desperation than the average checkout girl in Tesco. But it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to make a film about lap-dancers putting themselves through college and helping their kids with their homework.

Dancing at the Blue Iguana (18) is on general release