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"They shouldn't stay up, but they do," says Bohemian dress designer Amy, as she surveys her latest creations. The comment could be applied just as accurately to the entire David Hare film Strapless, a tale of two sisters and their routes to personal fulfillment. The nearly trite Euro-look and feel of the film, the arched simplicity of its story and the odd dramatic pacing, leave no reason for Strapless to stand up to reasonable scrutiny. A beguiling, multilayered performance by Blair Brown and director David Hare's talent for suggestion through obliqueness make Strapless a charming and memorable film, even if it's difficult to say why.

Lillian Hempel (Blair Brown) is similarly hard-put to define the attraction of an elegant stranger she meets while vacationing in Europe. The stranger, Raymond Forbes (Bruno Ganz), is well-mannered but familiar with her as they meet in a historic church and he persuades her to have lunch with him. Lillian nearly meets him later that evening but runs away at the last minute.

She returns to England, where she's been a doctor since moving from the United States years ago, to find her breezy younger sister riding the party life of London.

The two sisters couldn't be more different. Lillian is approaching 40, with a successful career as an American doctor in England but little in the form of personal ties. Even before she meets Raymond she's a set stage, prepared for some great drama of unknown form.

Amy (Bridget Fonda) is 25 and floating through life. She turns her sister's orderly apartment into a mess with a parade of parties and men. She can't understand when Lillian reacts negatively at the news of her pregnancy.

The real mystery, however, emanates from Raymond and the relationship he desperately, romantically builds with Lillian. He buys her a horse, he buys her a BMW, he takes her on expensive trips. It seems a dream.

It is. Creditors begin cropping up, and it becomes clear that Raymond had gone wildly in debt in his pursuit of Lillian. He disappears, leaving Lillian to wonder about her judgment and her purpose.

Brown couldn't be more engaging as Lillian. Her character is at a classic crossroads: successful in her career, kind, intelligent and giving, she nonetheless has little to show for it.

"Giving is great, it really is," says Lillian, as she sits crying in a hospital closet. "I just want to know: When do I get something back?"

Purposely shot at times in less-than-flattering light and angles, Brown still glows with beauty and wisdom. She is an understated, magnetic personality and the principal reason we care about the resolution of a sometimes cliched and predictable story.

Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor of Wim Wenders' quiet masterpiece Wings of Desire, is similarly sweet and enigmatic in Strapless. Though the facts would say otherwise, his character remains a sympathetic and elegant figure.

It's an odd film. Writer/director David Hare is anything but direct in his message. Is it a feminist tract showing that women can find themselves without men? Is it the story of men's tragic romanticism?

The answer's not clear. But the trip through Strapless' tangled web is a moving one still.



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Director: David Hare

Cast: Blair Brown, Bruno Ganz, Bridget Fonda

Screenplay: David Hare

Rating: R

Running time: 99 minutes

Excellent +++++; Very good ++++;

Good +++; Mediocre ++; Poor +