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Skeleton Woman

Good news: That New Age Interpretive Dancing Cancer-Diagnosis Erotic Love Quadrangle film you've been waiting for is here at last. Producer-writer-director Vivi Letsou's debut feature, "Skeleton Woman," plays like a Zalman King-esque heavy breather that's spent too much time fondling crystals in the Jacuzzi. Vague spirituality lends a vanity-project tilt to this silly soaper, putting a likely kibosh on its shot as a Spice Channel titillater. But slick indie package and some recognizable cast names could lead to limited cable/rental exposure. Demo that found 1997 incest-survivor-healing-through-tantric-sex item "Bliss" a profound journey might also be reached theatrically through four-walling.

With:
Anna - Serena Scott Thomas Olya - Daphne Rubin-Vega Victor - Tony Denison Trisha - Ria Pavia Luigi - J.E. Freeman

Good news: That New Age Interpretive Dancing Cancer-Diagnosis Erotic Love Quadrangle film you’ve been waiting for is here at last. Producer-writer-director Vivi Letsou’s debut feature, “Skeleton Woman,” plays like a Zalman King-esque heavy breather that’s spent too much time fondling crystals in the Jacuzzi. Vague spirituality lends a vanity-project tilt to this silly soaper, putting a likely kibosh on its shot as a Spice Channel titillater. But slick indie package and some recognizable cast names could lead to limited cable/rental exposure. Demo that found 1997 incest-survivor-healing-through-tantric-sex item “Bliss” a profound journey might also be reached theatrically through four-walling.

Tonally, this “modern-day folk tale” is very much in the vanilla tradition of pretty people undergoing life crises (the kind that necessitate many walks on the beach at sunset) amid upscale clothes, decor and sights. An exotic note, however, is strenuously struck by central figure Olya (Daphne Rubin-Vega) a dancer of indeterminate geographic origin (but myriad past lives, we glean) who performs at a posh strip club where there’s more arty self-expression than flesh bared. She lives amid ever-so-creative clutter with whiny lover Trisha (Ria Pavia). Latter is working on a novel — about endlessly fascinating Olya, natch — but a case of writer’s block has soured their relationship.

Meanwhile, Olya has somewhat mysterious liaisons with Anna (Serena Scott Thomas), an advertising exec whose wedlock to straight-arrow Victor (Tony Denison) is also going stale. At least Anna thinks so, since she neglects business, mate and anything else to daydream about undulating enchantress Olya. Discerning that something is amiss, Victor follows spouse to one assignation, then trails Olya. She has no idea of his identity, yet despite previous Sapphic orientation, feels suddenly moved to make al fresco whoopee with this handsome stranger — on the beach, by a flaming campfire, amid sexy ruins, of course.

“I never thought it could be like that … total oneness!” she post-coitally gushes to unhappy Anna, who cheers up when they spontaneously body-paint each other. By this point we’ve learned the two women met in a cancer support group, though neither has told her spouse of this diagnosis yet. Climax includes a suicidal cliff leap a la Dolores del Rio in “Bird of Paradise.”

A muffled howler, “Skeleton Woman” takes its somewhat daft pretensions very seriously, and there are plenty of them. This is the kind of movie in which darker skin color signals more “soul,” money and material luxuries are “bad,” and everyone’s “true” calling is liberal arts oriented.

There are tinted sequences in which storytelling Olya illustrates in dance the primal myths of many cultures; a baffling seg when her serpentine shimmy with a live snake at the strip club sends patrons fleeing from magically multiplied reptiles; dialogue stretches of psychobabble meeting pulp banality head-on; plus poetry recitations and tarot card consultations.

Principal thesps expose some attractive skin and otherwise maintain straight faces. Most viewers will probably find Olya and Anna annoyingly self-absorbed; earnest, bewildered Victor, nicely limned by Denison, wins the sympathy vote hands down. J.E. Freeman also leavens feature’s wooziness with a bemused turn as Olya’s long-suffering but loyal strip joint employer.

On design and tech ends, “Skeleton Woman” is well handled, with glossy views of San Francisco settings, flattering apparel, colorfully appointed interiors and soundtracked world-music flavors all in sync with overall tone of lofty kitsch.

Popular on Variety

Skeleton Woman

Production: A Skeleton Woman Prods. presentation. Produced by Vivi Letsou, Panos Nicolaou. Executive producer, Guy Saperstein. Co-executive producer, Susan O'Connell. Co-producers, Helen Thompson, Todd Traina. Directed, written by Vivi Letsou.

Crew: Camera (color), Mickey Freeman; editor, Andrea Zondler; music, Luis Perez, Richard Horowitz, Sussan Deyhim; production designer, John Johnson; costume designer, Roger J. Forker; art director, Raymond Pumilla; set decorator, Mary Knippling; sound mixer (Dolby), Ted Phillips; sound designer, James LeBrecht; choreographer, Deborah Greenfield; assistant director, Joe McDougall; second unit camera, Tom Chandler; casting, Bruce H. Newberg. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 8, 2000. Running time: 80 MIN.

With: Anna - Serena Scott Thomas Olya - Daphne Rubin-Vega Victor - Tony Denison Trisha - Ria Pavia Luigi - J.E. Freeman

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