A Winter Tan

In the mid-'70s, New York intellectual and schoolteacher Maryse Holder made two extended trips to Mexico in a self-conscious—and, as it happens, self-destructive—attempt to take "a vacation from feminism" and push her sexuality to the limit. Her adventures ended tragically when she was slain by a Mexico City pimp, but more than 1,000 pages of letters she'd written to friends were published posthumously in a book called Give Sorrow Words. It's important to understand this backstory in order to appreciate writer/co-director/star Jackie Burroughs' raw, fiercely committed 1987 film A Winter Tan, which doesn't soften Holder's abrasive personality or shy away from her sometimes painfully overwrought prose. As Burroughs, in a frenzied rush, recites passages from the letters directly to the camera, Holder's conquests and humiliations begin to take on a desperate fascination, as she becomes a living example of society's prohibitive attitudes toward female sexuality. But her many affairs with anonymous young Mexican partners are not without their rapturous moments, and, like Lina Wertmüller's similarly themed 1975 film Swept Away, the wide-open beachfront settings suggest a feeling of real liberation among the sexual politics. A Winter Tan gets better as it goes along, and deepens considerably when Holder's troubling relationship with an older man (Erando Gonzales) engages more than her libido. In near-constant confessional mode, Burroughs' role often leaves her embarrassingly exposed, but in the end, her fearless performance lends Holder the dignity and strength that were viciously stripped away from her.

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