It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Classy Film: View from the Top (2003), Gwyneth Paltrow’s Cliché Fest

We’ve all had to do jobs we’d rather forget about. For some people, they end up on Netflix rather than in a HR filing cabinet.

I first heard about View from the Top on Lainey Gossip, the one gossip blog I read every day. Lainey name checked it when Thanks For Sharing, a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo, was released. It marked a 10-year reunion for the actors, who held the lead roles in View from the Top.

If you’re a Lainey Gossip regular, you’ll know that to her readers, Paltrow is G and something of an obsession. Before the conscious uncoupling, before GOOP and the cookbooks, before Paltrow decided to be a lifestyle brand, there was what Wikipedia calls 2002-2007: Career Slowdown. After her Shakespeare in Love Oscar and her wedding to Chris Martin, Paltrow starred in few films until the Iron Man franchise came knocking.

Released in 2003, View from the Top is a movie Paltrow described to The Guardian as “this terrible movie that Harvey Weinstein talked me into doing”.

And terrible it is. The scenario, which revolves around the Hollywood cliché of a white trash girl from a small town with big aspirations, is telegraphed through flight metaphors and philosophical sentences such as: “It’s not my destiny. I want my destiny”; “I’m a pilot, it’s my job to know where people are going” and “For me the waiting room was my life until I met you”.

Paltrow plays Donna Jensen, the girl with big aspirations. After her quarterback boyfriend breaks up with her on her birthday, she decides to leave a promising career in the luggage aisle of her local department store for a job as a flight attendant on a commuters’ plane. Her boss warns her that customers will be gamblers and drunkards, her uniform is something out of a fetishist Star Wars shop, only with less taste and more polyester, but she sees it as a step up.

Which, since this is a feel good movie, it is. Her first job opens the doors to Royalty Airlines, the best American airline. In the process, she meets another cliché: Mark Ruffalo as the twenty-something who decides to drop his law studies because he’s afraid his whole life has been decided for him.

This entire review could be counting the film’s clichés. There might even be a drinking game there. Paris is presented as the City of Light in a first degree, one-dimensional way, through quick views of the lit Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysées. Jensen even wears a beret as La Vie en Rose plays! As a French person, I hate the way Hollywood keeps selling Paris, although I do understand it contributes to the capital’s tourist standing.

Even Jensen’s dream flight attendant job is handled through cinematographic platitudes. The camera follows her as she puts on her uniform, zooming on her zipping up her jacket or buckling her shoes. She is only seen in full through an escalator motive, an airport twist on the classic makeover reveal on the stairs.

During her training, Jensen gains a mentor in Sally Weston (Candice Bergen), the most famous flight attendant of her time. Weston has made a living selling ideas to young girls, mainly the notion that being a flight attendant means glamorous travel to faraway locations. She has become wealthy through her marriage with a man she attended to while working in business class, a flying myth as old as John marrying his prostitute.

Considering all these shortcomings, seeking a feminist message in View from the Top was farfetched. When Weston shows Jensen her walk-in closet, telling her she recognises her own ambition in her, she announces that the closet and riches of her life is all she’d ever wanted. Like in Pretty Woman, bagging a rich man is all one should aspire to. By the end of the film Jensen has conformed herself to this. It’s a pity the message is wrong, because I like the idea of Hollywood showing young women the importance of mentoring.

What I like less is Hollywood showing young women that women are bitches to each other. Jensen’s best friend ends up backstabbing her because of jealousy. Their last scene together is a ridiculous, half-hearted catfight. “You were always jealous of me for being prettier”. This is definitely not a character movie.

Rob Lowe features as a pilot. When I first saw him on screen, I thought his character and Jensen were going to end up together. So there was at least one surprise in the film. The other one was the presence of fellow West Wing regular Joshua Malina, in the cliché role of a gay man becoming a flight attendant. It’s miles away from the astute political roles he’s since played in first class Washington dramas.

Despite the acting talent gathered on screen, nobody plays well. I can understand an actor doing a movie because s/he needs to, for financial, for contract or for networking reasons. But once your name is on the poster, once you ask people to buy a ticket (and View from the Top grossed $19,526,014 worldwide), the least you can do is deliver. With a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, View from the Top is Paltrow’s last-but-one worst rated movie and the third-to-last worst rated for Ruffalo.

Here’s one thing not to emulate Gwyneth Paltrow on: even if you think the job is beneath you, do it well. Like Donna Jensen, who knows where it might take you?

Posted at 1:21pm and tagged with: Classy film,.

Classy Film: Neuf Mois Ferme (Nine Month Stretch)

If Hollywood remakes Albert Dupontel’s second movie Neuf Mois Ferme, as Jonathan Holland at The Hollywood Reporter suggested it might, it will be about redemption and the importance of the nuclear family.

This being a French movie however, the characters’ evolution isn’t as clear-cut; the moral aspect is less prevalent. The focus is on Ariane Felder (Sandrine Kimberlain), an ambitious Parisian judge, as she learns to deal with the unknown rather than on her one-night-stand, and the convict and burglar Bob Nolan (Albert Dupontel), being reformed.

A few months after an inebriated New Year’s celebration with fellow legal professionals at the Palais de Justice de Paris, Felder realises she is pregnant. Calling upon her contacts, she manages to piece the night together, mostly thanks to footage from CCTV cameras, which results in one of the funniest sequences in Neuf Mois Ferme.  Her shock to learn Nolan is the father is superseded by her discovery that he is the main suspect in the butchering of an old man during a burglary gone wrong. He’s even thought to have eaten his eyes! Not exactly father material for a woman who didn’t want offspring in the first place and, as a judge, would have attended one of France’s most prestigious schools.

Built like a play, thanks to three clear acts and limited locations (mainly the Palais de Justice and Ariane’s flat), Neuf Mois Ferme relies on tried and tested comic recipes, so much so that it reminded me of my high school literature classes on the topic.

The five comic types are a key part of the French curriculum: le comique de mots, based on deformed speech, jokes and word play; le comique de gestes, based on humorous gestures; le comique de situation, when the most unlikely people meet; satire and le comique de répétition, when something happens again and again. They were a large part of my school life as, aged 12 to 17, I made my way through Molière play after Molière play. A quick search online suggests it isn’t as big a deal in the English curriculum. Not so much comedy in Shakespeare, I guess.

Nolan’s lawyer, Maître Trolos (Nicolas Marié), suffering from a speech impediment and naivety, is the language-based comic. Juge de Bernard, (Philippe Uchan), Felder’s colleague with a crush on her, is there for comique de répétition: as she suspects him of being the father, she takes him to play golf where, to get enough tissues for a DNA analysis, she hits him with a club. This is the first of a series of scenes where Bernard is hit on the head by various and more and more symbolic objects.

I saw Neuf Mois Ferme as part of the Rendez-vous with French cinema festival. No word so far on a UK-wide release, with good reason: I am not sure how the comic effects translate in subtitles. Also, the movie relies on understanding the French justice system, which differs from its British and American counterparts, especially in the role of the judge who oversees investigations, and there were moments when only the French moviegoers laughed. However, the success of TV series like Spiral suggests that this isn’t impossible to overcome.  

Despite building his movies on traditional comic formats, Dupontel avoids being too academic thanks to the dark humour and the themes he infuses into the drama. Upon realising she is six months pregnant, Felder tries to self-abort by throwing herself off a chair she’s perched on her desk. The scene starts with a ruling delivered in traditional judicial verbosity. Judicial vocabulary is at the core of most the Kimberlain-Dupontel dialogues, and the resulting laughs demonstrate once again both actors’ comedy chops.

Kimberlain, who I had last seen in a much darker role in Polisse, playing a well-off mother who realises her husband is abusing his daughter, and before that in comedy Pauline Détective, shows that she has a superb comic timing. Her delivery and the very osées scenes Dupontel had her play gained her a second César award earlier this year - a well-earned one too.

A complimentary ticket to Neuf Mois Ferme was provided to me by Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Posted at 5:13am and tagged with: Classy film,.

Classy Film: Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)

Some childhood dreams are hard to let go. For me, it’s the determination I had, aged 12 to 18, to do my higher education at Sciences Po Paris, then the ENA, followed by an obviously brilliant career as a diplomat for the Quai d’Orsay, home to the French ministry of Foreign Affairs. Neither four years at the LSE or four years of project management for a luxury British brand have deleted it.

Having followed a different path, I satisfy the child in me by watching and reading endless material on these three French institutions. Quai d’Orsay, a comic book turned feature film about an ENA-graduate working as the Foreign Affairs minister’s speechwriter, ticks all my boxes. Add to that a healthy dose of humorous criticism of the French administration, first class acting and directing, and you get a film I just couldn’t not like.

The original comic book is based on former Foreign Affairs minister and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s time at the Quai d’Orsay and builds up to his Security Council speech against US intervention in Iraq. It is inspired by co-writer Abel Lanzac’s (real name Antonin Baudry) time as cultural and economic advisor to Villepin. Written by the comic book authors Christophe Blain and Lanzac, the movie closely followed this scenario.

Quai d’Orsay opens with Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz) trying to work out what to wear to his interview with Foreign Affairs minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte). He settles on a pair of white chinos and some square, dirty shoes, a choice that has the civil servants he bumps into laughing and makes him feel out of place. Although very much an administration insider through his ENA training alone, Vlaminck is an outsider and the viewer’s eyes through much of the movie because of his novelty to the ministry, a status exemplified by his wardrobe faux pas.

Lesson learnt, on his first day, Vlaminck switches to a dark suit, though not a matching one. It earns him some advice from one of his more careered colleagues: try wearing a matching suit but avoid black, especially with a black tie and square shoes or risk looking like a bodyguard.

Vlaminck’s dress sense is a recurrent theme of the first half of Quai d’Orsay, as he tries to find his footing as a speechwriter, to figure out what Taillard de Worms expects and learn to navigate the system. He gets a schooling in office politics when Valérie Dumontheil (Julie Gayet, who, when the film was released, was known for her acting work, rather than as François Hollande’s mistress), the Quai’s Africa specialist, compliments him on his first speech, hits on him and makes fun of his poorly-ironed collar and his polished shoes, only to backstab him in a team meeting ran by the real Quai boss, Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup, awarded a César for this role).

Dumontheil’s character is in itself a criticism of the administration. She is the only high-level woman in the team. All the other women featured are secretaries, or Vlaminck’s girlfriend. The Quai is a testosterone-charged universe, with the expected ribaldry. After Dumontheil publicly destroys Vlaminck’s speech with her criticism, one of their colleagues explains him that this is the Quai’s way of fucking, before illustrating it with a saucy song. Considering there is a gratuitous shot of Dumontheil in her underwear half-way through the movie, director Bertrand Tavernier might have missed the sexist angle of his story.

Criticism of the administration, for instance how the Quai d’Orsay doesn’t have Internet access (I’m not sure if this is still true), is only a small part of the scenario. At the heart of the parody is the minister, rather than his civil servants. Taillard de Worms’ personality oscillates between the ridicule of a five minute speech on the importance of getting the right yellow highlighter - because he needs to highlight the best sentences in everything he reads, especially Heraclitus’ Fragments, his trusted-to-the-point-of-absurdity text - and the eventual greatness of his UN Security Council speech.

Heraclitus and the highlighter obsession are not the only two jokes from the original comic book that Tavernier translated well on screen. Another of his coups is Taillard de Worms’ way of walking into rooms: he sends all loose sheets flying and the secretaries sitting on piles of paper to prevent disaster the second they hear him coming.

Between these funny moments and the insider look I crave to the Quai d’Orsay, this was never the film which was going to quash my childhood aspirations. Instead, it got me googling madly for documentaries on l’ENA.

Quai d’Orsay will show at the Ciné Lumière, followed by a Q&A with Raphaël Personnaz, as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinéma festival on 28 April 2014.

Posted at 1:15pm and tagged with: Classy film, france, politics,.

Classy film: Yves Saint Laurent 

I normally use the “classy film” label for any and all film reviews I post, but rarely has one been so deserving of the title. Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent biopic, which got unprecedented access to the Saint Laurent archives, is as elegant, as high-octane and as fashionable as the man himself.

The film starts shortly before Saint Laurent took over at Dior (1957) and ends with the Ballets Russes collection (1976). Two decades of revolutionising fashion and giving more power to women through the way they dressed. But also, two decades of drugs, alcohol and tumultuous love.

Packing 20 prolific years into 110 minutes was risky. At times, Lespert walks a very fine line between cramming short, almost cameo appearances by all the Saint Laurent legend-makers (Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin), Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet), Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski), Anne-Marie Munoz (Adeline D’Hermy) etc.) and lacking depth and substance.

Guillaume Galienne, who plays Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner in business and in life, explains that Lespert first described the story to him as inspired by Amadeaus. He wanted to “show the creative process through a couple, through a love story”.

Despite hints of Saint Laurent’s fashion process, including a scene showing him create his iconic Mondrian dress, and hints of Bergé’s business genius, the core of the film is the Saint Laurent-Bergé relationship.

Everything has been written, especially by French media, about both men. At the French Institute UK film première, most questions focused on the contemporary perception of Bergé, who’s renowned as being a bit of a bastard.

But this isn’t a film about the Bergé of the 2000s, the political man and the guardian of the YSL legend. This is a film about the Bergé from the 50s through to the 70s, a man who always walked one step behind his partner and who then barely figured in the YSL public story. Gallienne, whose father did business with Bergé and whose mother dressed in Saint Laurent, acknowledged that he was not fond of the character at first but developed a tenderness for him as production went on.

"This is a story about how you love - and live with - a genius. The guy [Saint Laurent] comes home and he’s just had sex with half the planet, he’s a manic depressive and he’s high on cocaine… but they loved each other, not for who they wanted the other to be, but for who they were", he explained to the Daily Telegraph fashion editor Lisa Armstrong, who was at the French Institute.

As well as characters, Lespert namechecks numerous iconic YSL moments: La Vilaine Lulu, the comic book about Saint Laurent’s devil alter ego; his erotic drawings; the launch of Rive Gauche, the first pret-a-porter brand; the Ballets Russes collection…Anybody can see the film and enjoy it, but some background knowledge will help understand how significant some of it is.

This is one of the reasons why I find Entertainment One’s decision to release a dialogue-less English trailer surprising. So far, coverage in the UK has been dominated by fashion publications, or for broadsheets, reviews written by fashion editors. Outside France, where Saint Laurent is a cultural must-know and the biopic reached nearly 1,000,000 tickets at the box office in two weeks, this is unlikely to be a film people go see because they happen to be at the cinema at the time it is showing. I doubt trying not to scare viewers away with subtitles will change that.  

Choosing to advertise the movie with a silent trailer means people will miss out on Pierre Niney’s absolute accuracy in reproducing Saint Laurent’s particular way of speaking. To nail it, Niney worked with a voice coach for five months.

He also trained with a physical coach, a necessity since over the course of the film, Saint Laurent goes from the good looking designer posing naked for the launch of his first fragrance, Pour Homme, to a man puffed up by drugs and struggling to walk.

Saint Laurent is seen sketching dresses a few times. Lespert was adamant Niney would have to be the one doing the drawing on screen. For five months the actor, who says he “sucked” at sketching, took lessons with a former Saint Laurent collaborator, a woman who worked with him in his last years as a couturier.

The film received full backing from Saint Laurent Paris and the Kering group (the brand’s current owner). Last October, Hedi Slimane, current YSL creative director, shot Niney for a feature in Le Figaro focused on Yves Saint Laurent. Niney was front row (next to Lespert and Bergé) at the Spring/Summer 2014 menswear show. The house dressed him at the Césars awards in February, and likely for most of the film promotion - although suit credits are hard to find.

Earlier this month, Niney released a three minutes short for Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, La Nuit de Pierre Niney (last picture). It highlights, in black and white, his vision of a Parisian night, from the Comédie Française to the bar Montana through the Tuileries. The short is part of a series of nine films broadcast on French TV in March. It is a nice attempt at marketing story telling around the men’s fragrance La Nuit de l’Homme.

Chanel, with both the face of Chanel No.5 Audrey Tautou and house muse Anna Mouglalis appearing in biopics about its founder, respectively in Coco avant Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, had a similar brand and cinema tie in in 2009.

Niney is the Jennifer Lawrence of French cinema: an actor in his early 20s, heralded as a genius by his more seasoned peers, who can do no wrong and who fashion houses would really like to partner with. As the luxury sector tries to redefine the celebrity game, making sure there is something beyond a contract and money tying a house to a name in the public eye, cinema seems to be a good way to ingrain affinities in the collective consciousness.

Not that it is anything new. Yves Saint Laurent himself took advantage of it. His collaboration with Catherine Deneuve was immortalised in the career-defining Belle de Jour, which he created the costumes for, ensuring the names Saint Laurent and Deneuve would forever appear together in almost every single fashion report about either.  

Posted at 11:21am and tagged with: Classy film, yves saint laurent, Brand communication,.

Classy Film: 20 Ans d’Ecart (It Boy)

It’s easy to be pleasantly surprised by a film you expect little of. Aside from Pierre Niney, the youngest French actor to join the Comédie Française, a state-funded theatre troupe created by Louis XIV, 20 Ans d’Ecart had no name attached to it which shouts “great film”. Not that it is one, but the script and the actors do add up to an enjoyable 92 minutes of DVD watching.

On a flight back from Brazil, 19-year-old Balthazar Apfel (Niney) and 38-year-old Alice Lantins (Virginie Efira), a glossy magazine editor coming back from a photoshoot, sit next to each other. Exiting the plane after an eventful flight, Alice drops her USB stick. Balthazar’s parting words: “nice nearly dying in your company”.

Alice’s boss Vincent Kahn (Gilles Cohen) is about to leave Rebelle. Shortlisted for his job: Lise Duchêne (Amélie Glenn), the in-house, young, fun-loving editor from Quebec, and Alice. Becoming editor-in-chief has little to do with ability and everything to do with personality. “I need somebody who makes me dream. If you don’t make me dream, how can you make the readers dream?” is how Kahn justifies his favouring Duchêne to Alice.

"Making the readers dream" comes to Alice when a brief second encounter with Balthazar, to collect her lost USB stick, is mistaken by co-workers for a fling. As a picture of them apparently kissing starts making the Twitter rounds, Kahn tells Alice that her new cougar persona is finally making him dream. Alice realises that to get the editorship, she should keep up the charade of dating a younger man.

Although Efira’s character is meant to be 38, the actress was a young 35 when the film was shot, Niney 23. As a result, the 20-year age difference doesn’t seem as big as the film title would have you believe.

Either as a consequence or by mistake, the script uses the age difference as little more than a plot device, called on and discarded at will. It attempts to broach the misogyny of how society judges women dating younger men vs. men dating younger women. Both Alice’s ex and Balthazar’s dad date women in their 20s. Yet when it surfaces, at her daughter’s school, that Alice might be seeing Balthazar, the girl becomes embroiled in a fight. “You can’t go against centuries of men dating younger women” is how her ex explains the brawl.

Because the film very much deals with issues on the surface, never exploring for instance how Alice feels about herself as she dates a teenager, it walks into a number of clichés. In a break-up scene echoing one in The Rebound (2009), Alice highlights to Balthazar all the things he will want to do as a 19-year-old which she just isn’t interested in.

Fashion is another of the film’s clichés. The photographers are divas. The hairdressers are gay. The models are up for threesomes. The editrix is an ice queen who doesn’t tolerate her ideas being questioned. I’ve seen the fashion industry portrayed in this way so many times I can’t figure out any more if it’s a parody, the truth, or if fashion people have seen it and decided to embrace it.

The biggest fashion cliché of them all is Alice’s transformation from bourgeoise coincée (stuck-up bourgeoise). The bourgeoise coincée is a recurrent French cinema character, perfected by actresses like Isabelle Huppert. She comes with 5-inch stilettos, little black dresses, buns and, courtesy of Catherine Deneuve’s Belle de Jour, a wardrobe of Yves Saint Laurent.

Lo and behold, Alice starts the movie in a classic wardrobe of Dior and Saint Laurent. Her silhouette is structured, all pencil skirts and tailored shirts, more business woman than fashion editor on a street-style blog.

One of the movie’s pivotal scenes sees Alice, who’s just figured out Balthazar is her key to editorship, go to his university to pick him up. In an interview with Direct Matin, the actress explained she partnered with Isabelle Pannetier, the costume designer who has worked with Audiard and more recently on Intouchables, to figure out exactly how Alice should dress. “I wasn’t sure if she should dress super sexy or very young, with jeans and trainers. Isabelle thought we should go for sexy, which changed the character a lot”.

Alice turns up in ankle boots, a white bodycon dress with a lot of cleavage and a leather jacket. Although there is no shopping scene, no clear penny-drop moment for Alice’s wardrobe, this is the beginning of a new style, for which Pannetier was inspired by French Vogue editor-in-chief Emanuelle Alt.

By the end of the movie, Alice is still in high-heel stilettos, but she’s swapped the pencil skirts for jeans and leather jeggings. Her chambray shirts are looser, her bags less structured and she’s become a layering genius. The implication is that she isn’t trying to act young, she’s finally acting her age; in finding her sartorial style she’s also found herself. Even though this film, or the way clothes narrate character evolution, isn’t about to revolutionise cinema, French or otherwise, I really want to know what happens to her, and Balthazar, once the lights go back up.

Posted at 2:54pm and tagged with: Classy film, Vogue,.

“You saw nothing in Hiroshima.”

Watching Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour in the Maison de la Culture in Nevers, a few metres away from where some of the film’s harrowing scenes were shot, was quite an experience for my 15-year-old self.

Elle: Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That is your name.

Lui: Yes, that is my name. Your name is Ne-vers. Nevers in France.

I was reminded of Hiroshima, one of the few Resnais films I have seen, when the French director died last week. What I remember best, aside from feeling proud that my small town was on the big screen, is disgust. As Nevers is liberated, the German officer Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) had an affair with, is shot. Like thousands of other women accused of collaboration horizontale, her head is shaved.

Marguerite Duras, the Prix Goncourt-winner and Académie Française member screenplay writer, chose to set the plot in Nevers because the town’s name resembles the English word “never”. At least that’s how my French literature teacher explained it at the time, in a class dedicated to the links between the film and the Nouveau Roman literary form. Never again as everybody said after World War I, never again as the world said after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Hiroshima is about memories that wounded survivors and their attempts to forget and get on with their lives.

Resnais’ first feature-length movie takes place in Hiroshima a few years after 6 August 1945. Elle, in Japan to shoot a movie about peace, meets Lui (Eiji Okada), a local architect, and the two have a passionate, though brief, affair. The morning after their first night together, she scratches him, reminding her of her time with her German lover (Bernard Fresson).

Watching the film at 15, I was disgusted and shocked by the scenes of her being shaved, a feeling I didn’t find again in cinemas until I saw Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book in 2006, a movie focused on a Dutch resistance woman embedded in Nazi headquarters. At the end of the war, women are shown being shaved and showered in faeces.

Even George Clooney’s more recent The Monuments Men briefly deals with the topic of women’s treatment after the war. Matt Damon finds Cate Blanchett in a Parisian prison. In the worse French accent ever attempted by an Academy award-winner, she asks him - with more than a hint of sarcasm - if he hadn’t heard she slept with Germans, a false accusation based on her working for the German officer looking after the Parisian art collection. She was actually trying to save the art by informing her brother in the Résistance of convoy movements.

Fairness is one of the values I hold dearest, which is why the misogynistic treatment of women at the Libération disgusted me at 15 like it does today. British Historian Antony Beevor describes the ceremonies of public shaving as “a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation. One could almost say that it was the equivalent of rape by the victor.” (The Guardian, 5 June 2009)

An entire generation was born between August 1945 and my own birth, yet we’re still funny about who was on whose side, and even more weird about talking about it. My paternal grandmother, a young dressmaker in Le Mans throughout the war years, always spoke with the utmost contempt of her colleagues who had been “fraternising with the occupier”. I was quite young at the time so fraternising was probably an all-encompassing term, a euphemism for affairs and an exaggeration for conversations. As Beevor explains, the source of this kind of contempt was more likely jalousie than patriotism. “People envied the food and entertainment these women had received as a result of their conduct”, he says.

Uneasiness about wartime has unexpected consequences. For instance, after Edward Snowden leaked classified documents about global surveillance programs, French media tried to explain why whistleblowing just isn’t a thing in France. The most common explanation was that wartime denunciations, which affected everyone, Jews, résistants, or the neighbour who annoyed you, left such a collective trauma and shame that France, as a society, doesn’t like people who tell. Apathy and cowardice were other, more acceptable, reasons.

We all like to think we would have been brave during World War II, helping the Résistance, hiding Jews and so on. These behavioural fantasies align with what we see as right in retrospect, in the easiness of academic debate rather than survival conditions. France ended up with more claimed résistants at the Libération than it really counted between June 1940 and summer 1945. If any of the conversations I’ve had were to be believed, had today’s French population been alive during WWII, everyone would have resisted.

Yet it’s not that simple, which is exactly what those movies show us, and what we seem not to learn from them. For me, the real judge of character wouldn’t just be what you would have done during the war, but also what you would have done just after, to the people who hadn’t been on your side.

Posted at 8:19pm and tagged with: Classy film, france,.

Classy Film: Un Prince Presque Charmant

Had Un Prince Presque Charmant been an American movie, it would have starred Katherine Heigl as a young, vivacious, naive Southern girl yearning for her Prince Charming. This is the level of this French rom-com, which borrows every banality of the genre and peppers it with a good dose of French societal clichés. 

I considered prefacing this blog entry with a spoiler alert but really, you can guess the entire scenario just by looking at the poster. Jean-Marc (Vincent Perez) is the overworked and misogynistic Parisian owner of an electronics company and the majority shareholder of a small factory in the South of France. For economic reasons, and without caring about the people about to lose their jobs, he decides the factory should relocate to Bulgaria.

The film was released last January, as relocations and factory closures were switching from being the hot topic on the evening news to the hot topic on the big screen. Another movie exploring potential relationships between the CEO of big companies and the employees whose lives he destroys came out three months later, Ma part du gâteau

Right after signing the relocation contract, a strike forces Jean-Marc to undertake a three-day-long road trip from Paris to Monaco to get to his daughter’s wedding. France is paralysed by a strike that criticizes, in the vaguest ways, just about everything evil about capitalism and reminds Jean-Marc at every possible crossroad why choosing to dedicate his time to his career rather than to his daughter was a bad idea. 

On the road, Jean-Marcs has a chance encounter with Marie (Vahina Giocante), a beautiful provincial girl much younger than him who dreams of meeting a prince. Rom-com twist: Marie is in the fact the daughter of the relocalated factory owner, though only the film viewer knows this from the start. 

Written and produced by Luc Besson, Un Prince Presque Charmant quotes the classic tropes of the rom-com genre: the two unknowns mistaken for a couple who face sleeping in the same bed, the CEO realising that he has missed out on the best of life, the big company eating a small one, the douche who becomes a gentleman when he meets the right woman…

In the first part of the movie, Jean-Marc is shown as an abusive boss who thinks it’s ok to be rude to his female secretary Evelyn (Judith Siboni) or to the woman delivering lunch. The film opens with him making fun of Evelyn’s suggestion that she could drive because really, how could she handle a car that powerful? Jean-Marc’s early world is split between the men who run companies and the women who make their lives easier, who entertain them and who they sleep with. Although this behaviour is easy to dismiss because the premise is that this is a redemption story, I don’t believe we should. The idea that abusive, misogynistic men can be reformed is about as likely as Edward marrying Vivian. 

Jean-Marc’s character turn-around is suggested by three changes of clothes in the whole film: at the beginning, he wears a classic, suave three-piece suit – alongside his car, his private plane and his threesomes, it suits his life of a CEO. As the road trip starts going south, as he encounters roadblocks and runs out of petrol, the elegance gets messier, the status symbols start being taken off one by one: the jacket, the vest, the tie. By the time Jean-Marc switches to a Renault electric car, considered “feminine”, he wears a casual double blue outfit of jeans and a shirt. Even though he finishes the film in another suit, it’s for his daughter’s wedding and it’s clear that this new attire is about finally making right by her rather than showing off power and money. 

I doubt Un Prince will be released in English-speaking markets. It received average reviews from critics and spectators alike in France. Its French-ness could, as is often the case, drag in some viewers, but not enough to justify many screens. If you don’t speak the language, you won’t be missing out. 

Posted at 10:29am and tagged with: Classy film, france,.

Oliver Hirschbiegel either directed Dianahis biopic about the last two years of the late Princess of Wales’ life and romance with Pakistani surgeon Hasnat Khan, too late or too early.

Too late, because the interest in Diana’s life has died down since August 1997. Of course, the British media and Vanity Fair still use her for cover material from time to time and new conspiracy theories surface every August 31, but Britain has mostly moved on to Kate, William and yes, back to the Queen. 

Diana feels too early because we don’t yet have enough hindsight. As a consequence, the film feels a bit like a piece of fan-fiction, and not of the well-written kind. There is nothing in Diana its target public wouldn’t have read or imagined in the pages of the hundreds of books and articles dedicated to her life, love or charitable works

I, of course, am the target public, which is why I went to see the film despite all the bad reviews. Seeing Charles Edwards and Douglas Hodge play former Diana staffers and authors of kiss-and-tell books (Patrick Jephson and Paul Burrell respectively) was like seeing actors play out parts of my own bookshelf. Not that I’m proud of it.

Making a movie about Diana was always going to be difficult because the material is there and everyone with something to say has talked, particularly the ones who shouldn’t have. As a consequence, Hirschbiegel doesn’t cover new grounds and his work with the existing one is too poor to be enjoyable, even as cinema marshmallow. 

Stephen Frears’ exploration of Diana’s death from the point of view of the Queen in The Queen worked because it adopted an unexpected angle and played on the Britain’s fascination with their monarch. It also worked because, by 2006, the Queen had returned to her position as Brits’ favourite grandma but over the same period of time, and even more since, multiple cracks had appeared in the quickly written Diana legend. Even though Naomi Watts is technically good, considering the material she was given, she’s no Helen Mirren yet. 

Diana lacks the angle The Queen dared to take. It tries to cram too much in 113 minutes: her fight with Charles and the Windsors, her love for William and Harry, her indecision as to what to do with her power, her simultaneous rejection and manipulation of the press and lastly, her affair with Khan, which, to this day, is the most untold part of her life. 

Had screenwriter and playwright Stephen Jeffreys picked one of these angles to focus his screenplay on, it could have worked. Or even if he’d chosen to tell it from the point of view of Khan, hit on the head by meeting “the most famous woman in the world”. Instead what we get is poor dialogues, inserted at times with known quotes. Reenactments of published pictures, whether in Angola on a minefield, fleeing paparazzi in London or kissing Dodi on the Mediterranean, act as the real thread.

The poster tagline taunts “the legend is never the whole story”, warning in the process that the film won’t be scared of clichés. Diana tries to take us behind the public façade with the help of gross symbolism. The mirror she applies her make up on at Kensington Palace, for instance, is framed with naked light bulbs, as in dressing rooms. We get it: she put on her public face and personality before facing the world. 

The foreboding is on the same level as the symbolism. It starts in the first few minutes, with Diana, Dodi, their bodyguard and their chauffeur stopping in a Ritz corridor, on their way to the Mercedes. The princess seems unsettled, as if something had told her not to go. This looks quite ridiculous in the movie, yet considering her well-documented interest in New Age and alternative philosophies it isn’t the biggest stretch. 

Hirschbiegel did get a lot of details right, if only the most obvious ones: the round handwriting for instance, or an Azagury slipcover hanging in the dressing.

Costume designer Julian Day reproduced some of Diana’s best-known outfits. He explained to Pakistan’s Daily Times that he had “help from other designers, notably one who designed for Lady Diana herself. He was inspired and helped in designing a dozen outfits for the film. I had help from Versace in reproducing one of the dresses.” 

Predictably, the film ends with Khan laying flowers outside Kensington Palace. It then cuts to a black screen where you read the usual blurb about what has happened since Diana’s death, about the decreasing use of anti-personal mines since her trip to Angola and the Ottawa Treaty. Hasnat Khan is still a heart surgeon (and didn’t support the movie). 

This might be Hirschbiegel’s way of saying that he treated his subject the way any movie director would treat a biopic, yet it feels ironic because the princess is still in the news. Diana transcends history, she is a pop culture icon in a way few other characters who have had movies (not documentaries) dedicated to them so far, are. It’s Carrie Bradshaw, mentioning on the day her book reviews come out that the last time she was up that early was for Diana’s wedding. It’s hundreds of people you can speak to who remember exactly where they were when they learnt she’d died. 

One way or another, Diana touched people. We are interested in her persona because it is relatable. There was something egotistic in people’s love for her. Mirren’s Elizabeth II showed aspects of that way of ‘touching’ people by exploring how the Queen’s world was forced to change after her daughter-in-law’s death.

Diana makes the mistake of being about Diana, not about the flaws and the unhappiness people empathised with and felt was akin to theirs. Diana is about a celluloid, one-dimensional being nobody is actually that interested about.

Here’s another angle that could have worked: one British woman’s life signposted by Diana’s. Marriage, divorce, children, depression, rebounds, hopeless love…She’s done it and so have we. Or maybe she’s had it worse than us, a revenge of fate on somebody with such a nice background. So when we’re asked to envisage Diana in a love story whose end we already know, it becomes difficult to root for her, the bad scenario the audience is asked to accept just doesn’t work.

Diana, for all her charity work, her giving birth to the future king and her attempts at influencing the monarchy, mattered little. What did matter was the unprecedented outpouring of grief that followed her death and its effect on the nation. Trying to understand this is one of the reasons why I moved to England and Diana got me no closer to an answer. 

Posted at 5:40am and tagged with: Classy film, Royal Family, review,.

Audrey Hepburn: Film and the creation of a style icon

This weekend, the Victoria & Albert Museum held an afternoon-long seminar on Audrey Hepburn’s cinematic style. Speakers gave papers on her fashion trajectory (Prof. Stella Bruzzi, Warwick University), the Cinderella motive across her movies and life (Dr. Rachel Moseley, Warwick University) and her relationship with Hubert de Givenchy (Drusilla Beyfus, Vogue on Hubert de Givenchy), mostly based on her early career. The below article is based on my amalgamated notes. 

Contrary to most Hepburn movies, this is a Cinderella story in reverse, where Princess Ann (Hepburn) goes around Rome incognito, alongside smitten journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). This was her first major role, and contains few costume changes. Ann spends most of her time in a simple shirt and a long pleated skirt, accessorised with a wide belt or a red scarf. This outfit was an instant success, partly because it encapsulates Hepburn’s true spirit and beauty and partly because it was easy for fans of the film to reproduce. Hepburn’s princess clothes, worn at the beginning and at the end of the film, tell the other half of Ann’s life: in the opening credits, a heavy, bejeweled dress establishes her as a princess burdened by protocol and the emotional weight of her duty. The dress worn at the end, also regal, but more comfortable, shows how her encounter with Bradley changed her. Edith Head, the Paramount costume designer who went on to collaborate with Hepburn on multiple motion pictures, explained that the actress influenced the wardrobe throughout. 

Sabrina marked the first collaboration between Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy. The actress had noticed him whilst working in Paris and was adamant her character should wear French fashion to showcase her transformation. Head created Sabrina’s outfits for the ‘before’ Paris scenes, and Givenchy the ones for after, including the unforgettable white dress Hepburn wears during the tennis court scene. The other Cinderella moment happens minutes earlier when Sabrina returns from France. The scene starts with Hepburn in a simple, sophisticated white robe, when she writes to her father, telling him how the City of Lights has changed her and warning him that she will be the most sophisticated woman at the local train station. She turns up in a black Givenchy suit and a turban. Clothes are used throughout to show Hepburn’s anxiety while navigating the class divide between her chauffeur father and the wealthy Larabee family, and illustrate how ill-at-ease she feels on either side. This film marked the first time the Sabrina neckline appeared on screen. Copied many times since, its authorship is disputed although Beyfus was adamant it was a Givenchy work. Head won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work in this movie but Givenchy was never credited

Funny Face followed the same Head/Givenchy split as Sabrina in terms of the before and after Jo Stockton’s transformation. Head also created the costumes for Maggie Prescott, editor of Quality magazine. Once again, Head is said to have resented her role since Jo is particularly frumpy in the early scenes of the movie. Hepburn goes on to wear Givenchy for a fashion shoot for Qualitythe running commentary mocks how contrived and superficial fashion can be, although the ‘normal’ girl does go fishing in an all-white and pink designer outfit. Fashion is also used to show that transformation through clothes is not a straightforward process with Jo the model being miserable and manhandled. Even during the first big reveal of her new style, in a memorable white evening gown with a pink cape, Jo looks sad and remote from the fashion world applauding her. 

Holly Golightly gave Hepburn her most iconic dress, the black Givenchy worn in the opening scene and still reproduced on everything from handbags to posters. The most complex of her characters, Holly has come to stand for sophistication while her flaws made her endearing and vulnerable. The sunglasses that accessorise her first appearance suggest her complex personality. Moseley credit’s Holly’s personal story and her desire to reinvent herself for her enduring appeal with women across the globe. 

Paris When it Sizzles (Richard Quine - 1964)

Clad in Givenchy throughout the film, Hepburn plays the girl next door but not as embodied by anybody else. Her beauty is not completely unattainable, but her clothes are. 

My Fair Lady (George Cukor - 1964)

One of Hepburn’s last movies before her married nine-year break, My Fair Lady is the film where the Cinderella motif comes full circle. It is also the one where it is at its most painful, with Eliza Doolittle submitted to daily bullying in the hands of Henry Higgins so he can win a bet against his friend. Here again, the change of clothes signifies a change of class. There is no real happy ending in this fairy tale since we are unsure what role Eliza is to play in Higgins life after the end credits roll out. 

Posted at 5:27am and tagged with: audrey hepburn, Classy film, victoria and albert museum,.

Classy Film: Pauline Détective's vibrant colour symphony

In Pauline Détective, Sandrine Kiberlain (as Pauline) is forced to holiday in an Italian resort by her sister (Audrey Lamy) following an emotional break up from her long-time boyfriend. 

Her beach-side wardrobe is full of vibrant, saturated hues that blend in with the Genoa landscape and the hotel’s colour scheme: blue, yellow, orange, violet and green.  

Pauline colour-blocks everything. With the exception of her also bright hairbands, there is no pattern in her outfits. The clothes fit together as clearly as the pieces of the criminal puzzle Pauline is trying to unravel to pass the time. A serial killer has been spotted in the region and by the time she lands in Italy he has already killed three women. 

Despite these sombre events, the only touches of black come from accessories: the sunglasses, the large straw hat, the canvas beach bag and a recurrent pair of ballerina flats which look rather out of place, compared with the rest of Pauline’s summery wardrobe. They symbolise the fact that, even though her body is on holiday, her feet and her imagination are still firmly anchored in her day-to-day job as the editor-in-chief of a trashy weekly magazine reporting exclusively on crime. 

Costume designer Marité Coutard’s simplistic wardrobe choices echo the movie’s uncomplicated scenario. From the limited number of characters to the rationality of Pauline’s deduction, this is a classic whodunit story.

White mostly appears in Pauline’s Paris wardrobe, pre- and during break-up: a crisp white shirt worn with a pleated poppy full-skirt, and the white silk pajamas ensemble she wears in bed when moping over her ex-boyfriend. 

Yet overall, Pauline doesn’t give in to the traditional wardrobe tropes of women who have just been dumped. Real character evolution is mostly absent from Pauline Détective and the clothes reveal little beyond the fact that Pauline has a quirky personality and an overactive imagination. 

 

Posted at 7:09pm and tagged with: Classy film, france,.