Reviews of French films of the month continue in conjunction with “Volta.ie” with two modern French classics
Dior and I (Dior et Moi)
90mins – 2014
Director: Frédéric Tcheng
Cinema is littered with failed attempts to capture the unique madness of the world of haute couture: Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter is a stand-out example. His 1994 film was regarded by many as a waste of great acting talent. Perhaps part of the reason why he and so many others have failed is because the temptation to focus on the celebrity side of the business has proven too great. It’s a world notorious for overindulgence in so many ways but if you concentrate too much on the aspect of excess, you end up missing the real heart of the story.
In Frédéric Tcheng’s understatedly excellent documentary, we are brought to the heart of the story of high fashion – or rather to the heart of a particular story of high fashion.
The main characters are the various dedicated middle-aged craftsmen and women from the ateliers at the famous Parisian fashion house founded by Christian Dior.
The documentary begins with a voiceover representing the late designer, telling us how he saw himself as two very different people: Dior the man, who was born in Normandy in 1905 and Dior the designer, who was “born” in 1947 in Paris. Throughout the film, the spirit of Dior maintains a pervasive presence. He is referred to directly by some of the staff (who talk about the fantôme de Dior stalking the premises at night) and indirectly by the haunted countenance of new chief designer Raf Simons.
The Flemish designer begins by addressing the whole Dior team on his arrival and promising to improve his poor French. It’s a promise he doesn’t seem to keep as he spends the vast majority of his time explaining his plans in English to confused staff members. He is assisted by his right hand man Pieter – an amiable fellow-Belgian who does speak fluent French. Raf doesn’t have much time on his hand for language classes, however, as the time allowed to him to prepare a collection for his first show is just 8 weeks. As one senior designer notes, one normally needs between 4 and 6 months for such a show.
Tensions mount between Raf and some of his staff as it becomes apparent just how short his time-frame his and his dearth of communication skills. There is also the commercial reality that when it comes to a toss-up between one of his senior couturiers producing a toile (it’s a mock-up of his design – I hadn’t a clue either until I saw the film) for him on time and looking after a client in New York who paid €35,000 for a dress and who needs a personal fitting, there is no contest.
Raf comes across as an aloof character for much of the film, but we appreciate that he is a man under pressure – desperate to impress on his first show and eager to shed the label of “minimalist designer” with which he appears to have been lumbered. Pieter reveals to us that his boss doesn’t do any sketches. Instead, he grabs a bunch of images, sends them to his team and gets them to come up with sketches, from which he’ll pick the best ones.
The staff seem inspired by this approach that gives them a strong sense of ownership in the process of quietly and efficiently producing dresses for the wealthy elite.
For someone like me who doesn’t know much about the fashion world, it’s a riveting behind-the-scenes look at very ordinary people going about their duties as best they can – all of them living under the ethereal presence of a landmark fashion designer who only became famous in his forties and who managed to leave a powerful legacy during a relatively short 10-year period of activity.
The weight of the reputation of the House of Dior seems to increase as we approach the day of the big fashion show. As Raf sits with Dior’s PR chief discussing the minutiae of pre-show publicity arrangements, we get an insight into the designer’s stress levels when he jokes about jumping out the window as the only sure way of getting onto the cover of Paris Match magazine.
In the final scene, we get to see Raf’s collection go on display, worn by an assembly-line of human mannequins that stomp expressionless through a house decked out in a stunning floral display before an audience of A-list celebrities. It’s an outpouring of emotion all round and by the time we see the show, we realise just how much we have been immersed in the world of Dior from the inside as we’re reminded of how this world of high fashion looks from the outside.
Overall, it’s a highly engaging piece of documentary-making whose narrative strength lies as much in the frisson of going behind the scenes as in the warmth of the real-life characters involved.
The Past (Le Passé)
104mins – 2011
Director: Asghar Farhadi
You can’t move forward if you’re stuck in the past and that hard time in the middle is called the present. In Iranian director Asghar Fardhi terrific French film that got lots of pats on the back on the festival circuit, the past is something his three main characters would like to move from just to make their present lives anything less chaotic. Marie (Bérénice Bejo from ) is trying to take that step forward when she picks up her soon to be ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) from the airport on a very rainy day.
The placid and amiable Ahmed is in town for a few days to sign off on the divorce papers so Marie can marry her partner Samir (Tahar Rahim) with whose baby she is pregnant with and then he can return to his quiet, normal life in Iran. These things never go as smoothly as planned. Marie has two girls from a marriage that was previous to Ahmed and Samir has a son around the age of seven whose mother, his wife is in a coma after trying to commit suicide. Marie’s oldest daughter a teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) refuses to stay in the same house as Samir.
Ahmed arrives at the house and soon finds himself playing the role as peacemaker and wonders out loud if there were reasons Marie brought him to the house instead of booking him into a hotel. Marie’s home is in the middle of an unsuccessful painting makeover, trying to give the old place a fresh new look but it takes more than a coat of paint to cover up a history.
The whole house is cluttered with belongings old and new, some stuff coming in other old suitcases going out and with Ahmed there for a couple days things feel tight and emotions flare. The rain not making things any better. There is love and hurt displayed in equal measure, cruelty disguised as honesty and some all too raw emotions on display, especially with children involved. When Marie and Ahmed go to the lawyer to sign the divorce papers a whole lifetime is served up in one word – “Yes” – when asked by the judge if this is what they want. What could have been a film as exciting as going over to a friend’s house and watching the couple fight is saved by subtle acting and a fine script that gives us just enough to know we want to learn more about this group of survivors and will they put their past behind them and get on with their future.
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