Celebration (2019)

At the same New Orleans French Film Festival where I saw an aging auteur say goodbye to her audience in a direct, personable way in the wonderful Varda by Agnès, it was difficult to not feel let down by the insincere, unceremonious goodbye of Celebration. Whereas the Varda film invites the audience into the heart & mind of its director/subject before they disappear from the world forever, Celebration keeps the audience at a guarded, cold distance. Maybe that distanced approach is more appropriate for Celebration’s more curmudgeonly subject, but it makes for a much less engaging & coherent film as a result. What’s fascinating about that difference between these two works to me is that the superior Varda by Agnès was seemingly constructed & distributed with casual ease in its director’s dying days, whereas Celebration has been fighting for its right to exist for decades – finally arriving long after its subject’s death and, maybe, long after its own expired significance.

The occasion for Celebration is the final show for legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, filmed in 1998. The title is deliberately ironic, as the entirety of the preparation & execution of this event is thoroughly somber in tone. You could maybe blame that grim atmosphere on the significance of YSL’s retirement, as his was reportedly the last of the great haute couture houses still in operation under their original designer. In practice, it’s clear that the sour mood is more a result of YSL’s own everyday temperament. He skulks about with a constant, disapproving frown that only lights up when he pampers his pet bulldog or encounters the gorgeous, young supermodels who advertise his creations. He hardly speaks at all in the film, retreating mostly to black & white solitude while his hundreds of uncredited employees do most of the day-to-day work in grainy flurries of color. YSL gives his documentarians very little to work with, and even just that morsel was yanked away from them in post-production.

Initially shot in the late 90s on 16mm film, Celebration took nearly a decade to fully shape itself into a proper feature – an early draft of which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007. It has since been bullied out of existence by the closest business partners of YSL (who has since passed away). Their protectiveness is somewhat understandable, as the void created by YSL’s grumpy isolation is filled by his closest collaborators’ unseemly vanity & aggression while staging the show. In short, the movie is bad PR. It easily could have padded its thinly-provided raw material with a glowing career overview of YSL’s significance in Haute Couture. Instead, it allows a few glimpses at Art History-inspired gowns & women’s tuxedos to substitute that background info. Most of the runtime is dedicated to capturing the eerie, miserable atmosphere behind the scenes at YSL’s final show – accentuated by a creepy score from horror cinema composer François-Eudes Chanfrault (who has also passed away during the wait for this film’s release).

Without any contextual info about how this late-career misery differs from YSL’s earlier, more youthful fashion shows, this behind-the-scenes glimpse fails to communicate anything coherent or concrete. Like the worst of the “elevated horrors” of recent years that it stylistically emulates, it’s all atmosphere and no substance.

-Brandon Ledet

When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture

If there’s anything in particular that the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child excels at, it’s in offering Oscar Winner & all-around Hollywood legged Faye Dunaway a free-range actor’s showcase. Resembling neither the restrained thrill-seeking-beauty of Bonnie & Clyde nor the detached-from-good-taste camp of Mommie Dearest, Dunaway’s lead role in Puzzle of a Downfall Child reaches for a more disorienting, heart-breaking knockout of performance. Much like Gena Rowland’s similar onscreen breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence, Dunaway’s mental unraveling in our Movie of the Month is purely a one-woman-show, fully immersing the audience in the heightened emotions & distorted perceptions of her character’s troubled psyche. One of the major factors in her mental decline are the Patriarchal pressures & abuses that arise naturally in the industry of high fashion, where she works as a model. Inspired by recorded oral history interviews with the mentally unwell fashion model Anne St. Marie (after she was used up & discarded by the fashion industry in real life), Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a scathing view of couture’s effect on the women who model its wares – especially once they need personal help or simply age out of their perceived usefulness. Dunaway’s heartbreaking performance at the center of the film would be a damning portrait of what the Patriarchy does to women’s psyches in any context, but the fashion industry setting in particular has a way of amplifying that effect to thunderous proportions.

When Dunaway returned to portraying a fashion industry artist later in the decade, her role was seemingly poised to exude more professional power & control over their own well-being. That sense of agency & solid mental health does not last long. In 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway jumps the chain of command in the world of haute couture from fashion model to fashion photographer. There’s much more creative control & professional clout to be enjoyed on that side of the camera, especially in the fictional Laura Mars’s case, since she happens to be a very famous celebrity photographer at the start of promoting her first book of collected stills. In that position of power, it’s arguable that Dunaway’s protagonist even perpetuates some of the social ills that torment her character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Laura Mars is famous in her fictional art world for portraying misogynistic violence & extreme sexual kink in her photographs. Worse yet, a deranged serial killer has started to recreate the sordid displays in her work when killing her own fashion models, putting people like Dunaway’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child character in direct physical danger. Whereas the abuse & mania at the center of that earlier work was anchored to the recollections of a real-life artist & public figure, however, the crisis in The Eyes of Laura Mars is more of a supernatural fantasy. Dunaway’s tormented fashion photographer sees through the eyes of the killer during their slayings in uncontrollable psychic visions, directly linking the eyes of her camera to visions of real-life violence. This unreal occurrence shakes her belief that her photographs are enacting the social good of showing the world as it truly is for women by having her work directly inspire violence against women while she helplessly observes from the killer’s POV.

When initially discussing Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ”Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” The Eyes of Laura Mars follows through on that train of thought, almost explicitly functioning as an American studio attempt at producing a Hollywood giallo picture. Boomer has even written about the film for this site before in reference to former Movie of the Month The Psychic, a Fulci-directed giallo thriller it shares so much DNA with they’re often accused of ripping each other off (depending on which one the audience happens to catch first). Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. What’s interesting here is the way these stylistic & hyperviolent giallo indulgences even the playing field between Dunaway’s two fashion-world archetypes. In The Eyes of Laura Mars she starts from a position of creative power far above her less protected status in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but the violent & carelessly sexualized way women are framed (if not outright abused) in the industry eventually makes her just as vulnerable. Her own mental breakdown is more of the calm-surface panic of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom than it is akin to Dunaway’s genuine soul-crushing illness in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (or her screeching madness in Mommie Dearest), but the misogynist ills of the couture industry had a way of breaking her protagonist down into a powerless distress in either case.

Almost inconceivably, The Eyes of Laura Mars was originally pitched as a starring vehicle for Barbara Streisand, who reportedly turned it down for the concept being “too kinky.” Having seen Babs pose in leather fetish gear for a Euro biker mag in her younger days, I’m a little baffled by that claim, but it’s probably for the best that she turned it down all the same. We still have evidence of Streisand’s involvement through the torch ballad “Prisoner” on the Laura Mars soundtrack, while also enjoying the fascinating double bill of these two Faye-Dunaway-loses-her-mind-in-giallo-adjacent-fashion-industry-narratives. Of the two pictures that cast her as a victim of fashion-industry misogyny’s strain on women’s mental health, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is both the better film and the better performance. Both titles are worthy of Dunaway’s time and energy, though, and together they conjure an imaginary crossover sequel where she plays both mad model & unhinged photographer – taking pictures of herself in an eternal loop of giallo-flavored mania.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics, and last week’s look at director Jerry Schatzberg’s relationship with reality in his early work.

-Brandon Ledet

Yellow is Forbidden (2019)

I’ve been making an attempt in the last few years to learn more about fashion as an artform – something I have a lot of ground to catch up on after decades of being a snotty brat who didn’t appreciate its full value. Unlike other niche artforms I’ve recently taken a better-late-than-never interest in – pro wrestling, drag, comic books, etc. – fashion doesn’t have an easy crash course introduction to its history or artistry. You can pick up practically any comic book issue, tune into any wrasslin’ bout, or drop by any dive bar drag show and get a basic feel for the merits of their respective media. To fully get fashion, by contrast, there’s centuries of factual history, evolution in craft, cultural context, and seasonal fads to catch up on to even approach a basic appreciation of what you’re looking at. I’ve found a couple decent quick-fix workarounds to this daunting gap in my art history education: The podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion is an excellent resource, although an auditory account of a visual medium. Reality competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model drop fashion history context in small morsels while showing off the basic building blocks of workroom craft (when not distracted with the typical beats of reality TV drama). Documentaries, then, would seem like the perfect middle ground between the fashion history podcast & the reality completion show – offering an explicitly visual format that can discuss historical context and fully display the artistry of the medium. That’s why it’s so frustrating that so many fashion documentaries fail their subjects by only profiling personalities & historical movements – literally losing sight of the artform being discussed, zapping it of its visual majesty.

Although its own subject is extremely niche, Yellow is Forbidden is a cut above the average fashion documentary in this way. A feature-length profile of Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, the film largely traffics in the well-established grooves of the fashion doc as a medium. Its fascination with Guo Pei’s larger-than-life ambition & peculiar persona, and its tangential interest in the history of Chinese fashion & the current state of Chinese textile production, are well in tune with the concerns of the typical fashion documentary. It even works those contextual details into a clear narrative structure, following Guo Pei as she prepares for a career-high runway collection meant to earn her recognition among the Parisian haute couture elite. Where Yellow is Forbidden overachieves within its own medium, however, is in the cinematic eye of its director (and fine art journalist) Pietra Brettkelly. Within just a few minutes of the film I was crying at the beauty & extravagance of Guo Pei’s work. That’s not something that can be achieved with a photograph or a podcast recap or even television news coverage of a runway show. Guo Pei’s extravagant, hand-beaded art gowns speak loudly for themselves as grand, inspired works of genius design, ambitious collaborations that take years to stitch into place. I’m sure seeing them in person, whether in motion on the runway or propped up on art museum display, could easily trigger an emotional response in an observer. That’s not an easy experience to reproduce in the document of a show, however, and I’ve seen few fashion films even attempt to do so as actively as Yellow is Forbidden. Brettkelly shoots Guo Pei’s designs with the careful, eerie beauty of an arthouse nature documentary, matching the avant-garde designs on display with its own heightened cinematic language. It’s an impulse I wish were more prevalent in the fashion doc as a medium.

Guo Pei is most widely recognized for having designed a bright yellow dress modeled by Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015. The story of how she & that gown got to that world stage and how much of a struggle it has been to be recognized by the infamously snobbish Parisian couture elite in the years since is perfectly suited for the documentary feature treatment. Themes of class disparity, political tyranny, racial & gendered glass ceilings, and the abuses of auteurist ambition arise naturally in Guo Pei’s quest to impress The Haute Couture Commission with her climactic runway show. Brettkelly could have very easily rested on the virtues of telling that story in plain documentarian language. Instead, Guo Pei’s intensely dyed fabrics, wedding gowns made of pearls, and glow-in-the-dark contraptions are treated as part of a larger, ethereal cinematic language that includes goldfish fins waving in slow-motion, kaleidoscopes turning in impossible configurations, and the cold digital exterior views of cityscapes being harshly interrupted by intensely colorful art shows of the museums they contain. Composer Tom Third matches this eerie beauty with an appropriately atmospheric, delicately sinister score. Brettkelly excels at the fashion documentary by keeping in mind that she’s not only documenting history; she’s also cataloging fine art – an achievement in craft & a sensory experience that’s difficult, but necessary to recreate in your documentation to do couture creations justice. The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.

If you’re as ignorant to the history & cultural context of the fashion industry as I am, I’m not sure that Yellow is Forbidden will do much to fill in those gaps of personal knowledge. There’s some insight here into textile production & the political limitations of the industry’s gatekeepers. Yet, this story of one artist’s struggle for recognition & legitimacy within that paradigm is a little too specific to be all that illuminating in a big picture sense. Guo Pei’s work in particular is very much worthy of study for anyone with an interest in fashion as an artform, though, no matter how well versed you are in the subject. Yellow is Forbidden does justice to her artistry by at least attempting to match her ambition in its own craft, no matter the impossibility of that task. That’s an ethos that the fashion documentary template in general could benefit from repeating, as too many middling docs chase down the medium’s history at the expense of its visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

Catwalk (1995)

Like in my recent-years’ attempts to dip my toe into the insular worlds of fringe-art communities like drag, pro wrestling, and alternative comics, I feel totally out of my league when discussing fashion, despite my interest in it as an artform. It took decades of maturity & shedding of teenage snobbery for me to personally recognize fashion as the vital, vibrant artform that it is, something essential to so many things that were already important to me: drag, wrestling, punk, cinema. As such, my vocabulary & mental catalog of the giants of the industry are embarrassingly thin, something I could stand to correct with some crash course documentary-binging on the subject. With recent pics like The Times of Bill, The Gospel According to Andre, and McQueen falling just outside my distribution reach, but weighing on me heavily as works I should seek out, I find myself looking to past docs to fill in the gaps in the meantime, which is how I found Catwalk. Produced in the supermodel-dominated 1990s when dozens of catwalking fashionistas were big enough stars to be household names even for someone as uninterested in their artform as I was at the time, Catwalk seemed like an easy enough entry point into the world of high fashion as any. That was naive of me; the film is more a head-first dive into the deep end than anything.

Following an overworked Christy Turlington as she walks 1992 Fashion Week runways in Paris, Milan, and NYC, Catwalk is posed as a day-in-the-life, behind-the-scenes portrait of a fashion model in the year’s busiest season, but actually functions as a “Supermodels! They’re just like us!” act of brand management. The lifestyle porn of watching Turlington try on the world’s most beautiful clothes in rooms full of the world’s most beautiful people in the world’s most romantic cities is a potent fantasy. Outside a few shady quips, everyone profiled is on their very best behavior; even their version of clubbing is extremely mannered & image-controlled. That’s not too much of a problem, however, when you consider the quality of elbows Turlington is rubbing behind the scenes at these shows: models like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Carla Bruni; designers like John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaulitier, and Isaac Mizrahi. Even the film’s tonally fluctuating music affords it an air of legitimacy, as it was provided by punk fashion pioneer Malcom McLaren. The only problem is that if you’re a fashion-scene dummy like myself you have no idea who these people are (at least by sight; their names might ring a bell) and the movie has zero interest in cluing you in, providing no captioned names until the end credits. This is a behind-the-scenes glimpse for people already in the know, one where announcing context would be blatant & gauche.

I have a feeling that if I return to this film after I’m more familiar with the fashion world superstars it casually profiles, I’ll get a lot more out of it. Even now, my ears most perked up in moments where people I was already familiar with happened into the frame because of the setting (Campbell, Cindy Crawford, RuPaul, Sandra Bernhard, Sharon Stone). As impenetrable as the film may have been to me as a fashion-industry crash-course, however, it did partially clue me into the general social atmosphere of a scene I’ve only before witnessed in parodies like Zoolander & (less cruelly) Prêt-à-Porter. Although this is a hangout documentary clearly intended for people already in the know, that casual familiarity with the scene does have a way of acclimating outsiders in a lowkey, context-light demeanor. I have a feeling I’ll appreciate this laissez faire fashion scene introduction more the further I get away from it. At the very least, it didn’t at all scare me away from pursuing the subject further.

-Brandon Ledet