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Quebec strip club film’s flat characters fail to inspire empathy

The latest film from Quebecoise filmmaker and Concordia Professor Guylaine Dionne, Waitresses Wanted (Serveuses Demandées, 2008) opens and closes with a passing stream of faces: all young, all beautiful, and all illegal immigrants working as exotic dancers in the trashy strip club L’Elixir in downtown Montreal.

Janaina Suaudeau plays Priscilla Paredes, a 22-year-old who left Brazil four years earlier in search of a better life and job in Canada. Yet when her student visa expires, Priscilla’s desire to stay forces her to answer L’Elixir’s call for “Serveuses Demandées” and join this circle of desperate girls with similar stories to her own. It is here she meets and falls for the confident and aggressively sexual Milagro (Clara Furey). While Priscilla is intent on staying in Canada, Milagro wants nothing more than to leave; ironically, her dream is to travel to Brazil. Waitresses Wanted explores the love between the two girls as a means of escape – and then survival – while facing the sex, drugs, and violent oppression that mark their lives.

Another Canadian feature about a strip club, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) revolves around a group of people connected through a Toronto nightclub of the same name. Egoyan and Dionne’s films illustrate the way Canadian filmmakers often employ sexuality to highlight deeper psychological or political issues – that is, neither Exotica nor Waitresses Wanted is merely about sex, and perhaps each film’s conspicuously low sexual content points to the larger themes at work. It seems Exotica and L’Elixir serve as centres around which characters come together and clash out of desperation. Both films question what – beyond sex – drives people to these situations.

Yet while Egoyan brilliantly succeeds in framing his characters’ yearning for connection, Dionne’s lack of character development keeps them at arm’s-length. Perhaps most importantly, the love between Priscilla and Milagro fails to develop beyond the poignant scenes of them dancing together early in the story. Though Suaudeau and Furey’s individual performances merit due recognition, together they do not display a great deal of chemistry, and their relationship is hard to follow in the latter half of the film. In turn, Dionne falls short in sustaining the audience’s empathy for her characters, and the film’s slow progression makes it easy to lose interest.

It seems Waitresses Wanted is reaching – trying too hard to be heavy and to convey a depth that does not surface on-screen. Martha Wainwright’s repeated mournful drone in the background feels disjointed and points to the disparity between content and style that endures throughout the film. That Dionne comes from a background in documentary film perhaps explains why she expects the film’s theme to speak for itself, yet the story does not come alive under her direction and its ending feels incomplete.