Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 07, 2015 1:37 pm 
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A tight-lipped and elegant documentary on the new house of Dior

In his first documentary feature Frédéric Tcheng takes us inside the process of Raf Simons' creating his first Dior couture collection, both introducing the Belgian newcomer to Paris fashion and Dior's seasonal show -- and setting these events and personalities in the context of the house of Dior's very definite history.

At the outset Tcheng reviews the story of Christian Dior himself, always a bit of a mystery. His conservatism, his privacy (so unlike the decadent YSL, the world-traveling, bon vivant Valentino), and his reserve are qualities that Simons shares so much he couldn't read the memoir Dior wrote just a little before he died. Dior's demise ended a reign of only ten years that nonetheless set the spirit of the house so the halls of its Avenue Montaigne location are still felt by those working there to be invaded by his spirit. His New Look was decisive, important, outstanding. It set the style for post-World War II fashion. Simons will seek, in part, to deliver modern evocations of Dior's New Look. Excerpts, in French, from Dior's memoir, written shortly before his death, flow through this film as voice-over. They are poetic and evocative. They don't reveal the man. Nor will Raf Simons reveal himself.

Raf is a private fellow. We don't get to look into his personal life, as we did with Valentino, and in all the Saint Laurent films. But he's perhaps more a team player than they, and so we meet his team. Logically enough, because when the French-born, New York-trained filmmaker Frédérick Tcheng's documentary begins its present-time segment, Simons is just meeting that team for the first time himself. Tcheng, following a background segment on Dior history, begins the live-action of his film with the arrival of Simons at Dior.

Surprisingly, Simons must create a new, first, show, a process that usually takes much longer, in only two months. This will give the economically-organized film a "ticking clock" structure, a built-in added excitement -- if a somewhat theoretical one, since all run-ups to haute couture shows are tense affairs, as we know from various other films.

Luckily, Pieter Mulier, Simons' working partner and "right hand," who arrives with him, though also Flemish-speaking Belgian, not only can get along in French but is clearly a warmer, more outgoing person. Mulier connects well right away with the two premières, the title of the venerable chiefs of the dressmaking process at Dior. The division is the traditional one, we learn, into a première for flou, dresses, and a première for tailleur, suits. "Flou" is under the care of Florence Chehet, or Flo (yes, flou by Flo; but this amusing assonance is not commented on by the stern film). Flo is a down to earth, forthcoming woman, and Tcheng, a native French-speaker, has good access to her and the other French staff members. The première for tailleur is Monique Bailly who, perhaps appropriately, is more tightly wound, nervous, and tends to worry a lot, so we don't hear as much from her, though when she does speak, her remarks dramatize how tense-making the enormously labor-intensive collection-preparing process is. But both women communicate well with Mulier. Flo is so charmed by hi she's disappointed he says he's gay, a loss, she thinks, to women. "One can't do anything about nature," he says. One can only guess how things would go without Pieter as liaison for Raf.

Luckily, Simons has a method that's democratic and participatory. He makes no drawings. Instead he prepares "files." It's not made totally clear what that means, but they are distributed by the premières among their staff to develop individually with many drawings of their own. Then Simons comes in again to critique the test versions of dresses worn by models and send them back for changes. He has gone through the Dior files looking for dresses he can adept.

The film doesn't penetrate deeply into Simons' style as a dress designer, which may be moot at this point anyway. But what's clearly a new note here is Simons' passion for a German-born American artist living in Los Angeles, Sterling Ruby, some of whose paintings look like knockoffs of Gerhardt Richter's blurred -layers abstractions -- and Simons avowedly loves Richter paintings too. Perhaps Simons' most distinctive gesture, that we can see anyway, is that he takes the bold step of having fabrics for some of his dresses in the collection copied from Ruby abstractions using a difficult method of printing on the threads before they're woven, which itself produces a blur effect. This creates tension, because the rare process has to be rushed far beyond the normal, they say it's not possible, and so on. And when it does work, this seems to be Simons' happiest moment, till the ecstasy, exhaustion, and relief when the collection debut is over.

The big fuss comes when there's a delay due to Flo's flying to New York to help with a customer fitting. Her flight is delayed, and time is of the essence. The customer is worth $350,000 of business a season, and haute couture functions by selling, Flo says. But Simons senses a loss of power in Flo's simply disappearing like this. He wants to take precedence over any customer, no matter how profitable.

The "fun" of the film is all the talk from the atelier staff to the camera, of which there is plenty. Simons keeps seeming austere and removed, Pieter friendly and communicative. But even though he comes from menswear and has never done this before, even though his French remains limited to a few superlatives, Simons clearly has the confidence and the ego necessary. Being a major couturier requires the acceptance of power. It comes with the atelier, but to use it requires boldness. Simons seems to have all that. And this is palpable when he hires a grand maison particulière, a historic Paris private house, and for the showing, has the walls banked with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fresh flowers inspiried by Jeff Koons' giant Flower Puppy. The show of the collection runs through various rooms of the house.

It's extravagant, and it works. The grand gesture is a success. As the celebrities like Marion Cotillard and Isabelle Huppert and Jennifer Lawrence flood in, even Anna Wintour remarks, impressed, on the evident "lack of budgetary restraints" these vast glowing Flower Puppy interiors show. But Raf Simons remains as remote as ever. And this is true even if we see him almost faint with nerves going out to take the applause. Tcheng has even said who the "I" is in "Dior and I" is something he means to leave ambiguous. This is a big ego that's also a big mystery, a harsh germanic genius in the middle of Paris. (He vacations, it seems, in the Hollywood Hills.)

Tcheng's film-about-fashion cred is well established, since he worked on both Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011)

Dior and I/Dior et moi, 90 mins., debuted at Tribeca; showed at a dozen other festivals. Theatrical opening in the US 10 April 2015. Landmark theaters 24 April SF Bay Area.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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