August Newsletter: On River… and Radio Silence


 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 
 
I still haven’t watched all River Phoenix’s movies. I like the feeling that there are still movies of his I am yet to discover, that I have to wait to watch another film of his. But I have recently watched Dogfight. And I rediscovered the really good actor that he was and also the River Phoenix I would have loved to see evolve and succeed in Hollywood. He was too sensitive for it all. There was something mysterious and impenetrable about him, something quiet yet powerful that easily caught your attention and often held the screen. And he could outshine just about everyone, but really he didn’t, everyone just seemed to act better around him. A reader once wrote to me, “I know it’s easy to assume that his whole life would have been an inspiration, but with extremely talented people like him the chances of him falling to pieces were just as big.” But the thing is he did fall, and we didn’t wait a lifetime to see him fall. That is not the reason why we become so obsessed with people who die young, the reason is the realisation of how much they achieved in their short life. So I think they deserve us to celebrate their life and career they did have, without questions and assumptions and without making their death the defining moment of their life, and without imagining a future that never was.

I keep thinking about how everyone nowadays has an opinion about everything. Since when have we become such experts, especially on someone else’s life? Since everyone wants to consume everything too fast, wants to know, without really “knowing”, everything as soon as it happens. I don’t think I have appreciated quarterly, bi-annual or even yearly publications more than I do now. I seek them out (and I am recommending one further down this newsletter). I remember how photo-journalist Susana Gíron was telling me in our interview about her “90 varas” project, which she started in 2015, and she is still photographing the story. “The world goes too fast. Thousands of images around us every moment. I don´t know how big that place is for storytelling, but what I know is that I need time to tell my stories. Perhaps for many people it is too slow and they don´t enjoy the discovery of every picture when you look at it with attention. It takes time and effort, but the feedback, the kind of feeling that comes back to you is more powerful as well. I need to belong to the places and the people who live in my stories, understand them, share the life with them… I don´t know any other way to tell a story well. Good things need time. Good storytelling needs time.”

During Cannes Film Festival this year, Sebastian Meise’s film Great Freedom played in Un Certain Regard, accompanied by the official film poster, by one of my favourite film poster designers, Vasilis Marmatakis. I had talked to Vasilis before on a couple of different occasions and I reached out again to him to discuss his latest work. His answer took me by surprise, in a revelatory way. He told me that he had just given a lecture at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin and he thought best to take some time off from elaborating for now, suggesting we would postpone our conversation for later this year, when he will have new work ready. How I wish others picked their conversations and let the audience breathe and also made us make an effort and dig deeper and appreciate the waiting for something new, to wait for a new film in theaters, to wait for a new interview with a favourite artist, to really wait for the good things.

Adventures in living your life just for yourself. A little radio silence would do us all good.
 

“Well, that the style today – pipe things – can things –
freeze things – computerize things. Have to be careful
about that. You can’t develop a mind full of beauty or
tender imagination and independence of spirit tearing
along in a box without a lot of space and air.”

Katharine Hepburn, Me: Stories of My Life

 

 
 
Viewing
 
The African Queen, 1951

This week, of August 5th, marks 115 years since the birth of John Huston, one of the true storytellers in cinema. The African Queen is at its 70th anniversary this year. The inspiring pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart resulted in one of the great film classics and one we are still talking about today. And I wonder, will people still be talking about any of the movies made today, 70 years from now? Neither Bogart nor Hepburn were the first choices for their roles, but they turned out to be perfect, worked so naturally together, “they complemented each other and became the film,” is how John Huston described it. “They weren’t sure whom they were going to have for the man,” Katharine Hepburn recalled in her autobiography. “First, John felt it should be an authentic cockney. But when they began to think of Bogie, there was no one who could compete with him in personality or looks. They had him be a Canadian. Can you imagine anyone else in that part? He was perfection.” Bogie’s part was indeed different than what he had done before. Huston often said he never wrote a script with Bogie in mind but he somehow always found a way into his films. That’s what a great actor does, isn’t it? “I was sure this was actually one part of Bogart, and it took him a little time getting into it – but he found it,” Huston told Urs Egger in 1977.

As for Katharine, John Huston would fondly recount their experience working together in a Playboy interview with Lawrence Globel, from 1985: “Katie was born suspicious, and she had great reservations regarding me that she was in no pains to conceal. She knew that both Bogart and I were wastrels, but Katie has a weakness for wastrels. Spencer Tracy was also one. But we put it on for her. We pretended to be even bigger wastrels than we were.” Discussing the film with Bertrand Tavernier, Huston confessed that he had a particular tenderness for The African Queen, which he considered one of the happiest experiences – its shooting having allowed for a certain amount of improvisation and working with the most dedicated people – he had ever had, “although it is a work that feels external to me. I don’t feel like it’s one of my movies. It’s from another vein.”

Dogfight, 1991

The rules of the dogfight were simple: everybody puts in fifty bucks. And the guy with the ugliest “date” wins. River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Dogfight. A love story.
 
Kiss of Death, 1947

Richard Widmark, at his debut role, as one of the most spectacular characters of villains in film history. I love how uncompromising Henry Hathaway, so comfortable in creating an underworld where violence and crooks reign, is in showing Widmark act as he does, no explanations, no apologies. Watching him I couldn’t help imagining him in the role of Joker, the Heath Ledger kind.
 
The Report, 1977

A tax reporter is accused of taking bribes … This was Abbas Kiarostami’s first film. His films emerged from the simplest of things, from the smallest of moments. He didn’t make up extraordinary stories and extraordinary worlds in his movies, but he looked for ordinary lives in exceptional moments, which also happens in The Report, where a tax collector is accused of taking bribe and he also has to deal with problems at home. In the simplicity of the people and in the simplicity of the dialogue, there is a deep understanding of life, that would permeate all Kiarostami’s films.
 
Key Largo, 1948, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, because this summer we are channelling their characters. When John Huston watched Key Largo for the first time years after its release, he told Barbara Thomas in 1978, “I liked the whole picture.” There is something to this film that I really love. I think it just feels very entertaining despite or maybe because of the contained, claustrophobic setting of a small hotel in Florida, and all the actors do such a fantastic job playing out their fates during a compressed period of time, during a hurricane, as contrasting characters brought together by circumstance. Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, at its 40th anniversary this year, remains for many the quintessential adventure movie, is an exercise in pure cinematic style, and has every bit of action held together by an irresistible mixture of boyish spirit and a romance with classic cinema. Drawn from forgotten Saturday matinee serials of the 30s, comics, and Howard Hawks films, Steven Spielberg created the kind of adventure he would have loved as a kid. Throughout his career, Hawks, too, had wanted “to merge his fictional ideals with his real life, a boy’s fantasy being played out every day“.
 
Jaws, 1975

A summer tradition. It never gets old. And after costume designer Justine Seymour told me how Quint’s cap inspired the wardrobe for Justin Theroux’s Ally Fox in the new adaptation of The Mosquito Coast, I was even more eager to watch it again this summer.
 

 
 
Reading

A Mano/By Hand is a beautiful short essay written during quarantine last year, where poet and publisher Nicole Cecilia Delgado (with translation by Carina del Valle Schorske) wonders how to live a life of poetry, live independently out of poetry and publishing books by hand, while living in and moving from New York City, to Mexico and then Puerto Rico. “This is what my daily quest is about. I’m calling up the stereotypical specter meant to scare young poets: you’re going to die of hunger. The challenge – the project – is to live with dignity, to achieve real quality of life, to create community in the process and find joy doing so. The project is to live with/in poetry: poetry is the project’s basic unity.”

In my July newsletter I wrote why Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is the film I wish I could watch for the first time in cinemas this particular summer. But because I can’t have that, the recently released novel is the next best thing.

The rest of my reading has been comprised of research material, for the most part: an amalgamation of John Huston interviews, Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall, but the one that tops it all is Bertrand Tavernier’s marvelous Amis Américains: Entretiens avec les grands auteurs d’Hollywood. This book, a beauty of a book, makes me shout with joy. It’s hands down my favourite book about film at the moment. I do believe that the French write the best books about film and their passion for cinema can hardly be equaled. And, further more, this one is the most exclusively and expressively illustrated (why so many specialty books lack proper photography, I will never understand). And because I have just mentioned Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, here are some of Bertrand Tavernier’s impressions after its release, as related in the book: “Tarantino always elicits endearing reactions, a sometimes excessive idolatry that ends up masking the depth of his work. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is an anthem to cinema, to the power of cinema. It’s a touching, warm, childish and funny tribute. Tarantino makes no distinction between the cinemas he shows: he moves away from the mainstream cinema of the time to take a loving look at the filming of a series western in a completely cheap setting. He takes his time, takes detours through dialogue, through a camera that lingers, through a cinematography that creates nuances that have become rare in today’s American cinema, à la Jackie Brown, of which Once Upon a Time often makes me think.”

I love how Dustin O’Halloran talks about his favourite films, revolving around the soundtracks and musical scores.

 

 
 
Listening

Revisiting a Fresh Air interview with Anthony Bourdain, as the new Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner, has been released. For impressions about the film, Alicia Kennedy’s opinion piece is my choice.

Entreprendre dans la mode, le podcast des industries créative et de l’art de vivre, where Adrien Garcia talks to fashion designers, entrepreneurs and the most creative people, their inspiring conversations having led to Adrien’s co-founding of his own fashion brand, RÉUNI. A good reminder of the power that comes with asking.
 
The playlist
 

 
 
Exploring

Toc Toc Toc Editions, the bi-annual independent magazine created by Sophie Denux. Born from the desire to share a certain vision of creation, of contemporary craftsmanship and its various players, TOC takes the form of an invitation to discover their world, their living spaces, their workshops, their journeys…
 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden, Ridgeline, and Huh. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Sophy Robert’s The Art of Travel. Monocle magazine, in print.

 

 

“Silence, slowness and space are the new luxury.
We go where the crowds don’t,
we explore what others won’t.”

Travel writer Debbie Pappyn and photographer David De Vleeschauwer

 

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This Summer We’re Channelling: Lauren Bacall in Key Largo

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo”, 1948. Warner Brothers.

 
 
When John Huston watched Key Largo for the first time years after its release, he told Barbara Thomas in 1978, “I liked the whole picture.” There is something to this film that I really love. I think it just feels very entertaining despite or maybe because of the contained, claustrophobic setting of a small hotel in Florida, and all the actors do such a fantastic job playing out their fates during a compressed period of time, during a hurricane, as contrasting characters brought together by circumstance.

Humphrey Bogart, as Frank McCloud, is an embittered army major, who visits a hotel in Key Largo, Florida, to meet Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) and James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the widow and father of his friend war buddy killed on the front. Edward G. Robinson plays fugitive gangster Johnny Rocco, who takes over the hotel together with his entourage and holds everybody hostage as the hurricane strikes. He is introduced sitting naked in a bathtub, chewing a cigar. “I wanted the look of a crustacean with its shell off,” said Huston in an interview with Dan Ford, in 1972. “Robinson is immediately established as obscene and dangerous, like an animal caught out in the open.”

Lionel Barrymore’s character was in a wheelchair. The actor had been confined to a wheelchair for some years. In one scene, he had to draw himself from his wheelchair defending Franklin Roosevelt. In reality, he hated Roosevelt and Huston told the rest of the crew “to watch how he greeted his teeth when he had to praise him – John loved stuff like that,” Lauren Bacall remembered in her book.

“Bogart was extraordinary in that,” Huston would say about his experience of working with Bogie on the film. “We were friends, but it was the image Bogart projected on screen that made him right for my movies. I never wrote a scenario with Bogie in mind. After the screenplay was written, however, I would say, “Only Bogie can play this role.””

Bacall and Bogart were at their forth (it would also be their final) film together. In the book Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart, Richard Schickel describes Bogart’s scenes with Lauren Bacall as having an “unguarded quality”, something Bogart had never done when playing opposite other women. That is very true. They were made for each other, and had a very special rapport, on and off screen.

They, of course, had the most intense chemistry when they first appeared together in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, where “a very knowing, yet actually not widely experienced young woman meets an older man, knows at once what she wants, and proceeds to tempt, tease, and taunt him into an instinctive, erotically charged rapport,” as Todd McCarthy described their love story in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.

In The Big Sleep, Bacall and Bogart’s second film together, the same Howard Hawks wanted to recapture the provocative groove of their previous film, aiming at creating another vehicle for the Bogart-Bacall magic, and worked out the script with the intuitive view of the two characters’ relationship and dialogue in mind. Key Largo was different. Not only was it in the hands of a different director, but the director was John Huston. “Key Largo was one of my happiest movie experiences,” Bacall would recall. “I thought how happy a medium the movies were, to enable someone to meet, befriend and work with such people. What a great time of life that was – the best people at their best. With all those supposed actors’ egos, there was not a moment of discomfort or vying for position. That’s because they were all actors, not just ‘stars’”.

Dressed in a full, pleated wool skirt with generous side pockets and white dress shirt, pieced together with a wide buckle belt and espadrilles (the iconic flat shoes became popular in the United States when they were seen on Lauren Bacall in this movie), she channels the same restrained elegance and distinction that Bogart’s look – in matching pleated tweed trousers, white shirt and belt – does. She was “one of the boys”. Indeed, she was the honorary female member of the Rat Pack. She was the real deal, one of a kind. Just as Bogart. She may have seemed sultry, tough and unattainable from afar, but she defied all these stereotypes about herself, as it so clearly comes off in her book. It was her independent spirit, grace, statuesque beauty, strength of character and sharp wit that were so unattainable about her. He stood tall in everything he did and was – “Bogart in real life was what he was in movies,” were John Huston’s words. “We were good friends, we would drink together, we liked to tell nonsensical jokes and laugh together. He was a wonderful companion. He did not know what being serious meant, and if he noticed that other people were being pretentious, he would attack them in the most direct way.” Together, Bacall and Bogart became their best selves.

The practical 1940s suited Lauren Bacall, style-wise, and she would carry on her utilitarian, razor-sharp outfits into the 50s, her enigmatic femininity and feisty and unconventional nature in glorious contrast to the feminine excess of the next decade. Bacall and Bogart both had well established individual styles and together they became even more iconic. I like how coordinated to the smallest detail their costumes in Key Largo are, they even have the sleeves of their white shirts turned up and the top shirt buttons unfastened. She could carry off mannish tweeds and a white shirt as well as any of the guys. Nobody could straddle both tomboyish and feminine playfulness better than Lauren Bacall. Audrey Hepburn would wear a very similar ensemble five years later, in Roman Holiday, but we appreciate Lauren’s look – created by Leah Rhodes, who also dressed Bacall in The Big Sleep – in a different way. Audrey’s, just as her character, has a gentle innocence and a sweet, unabashed girlish quality to it, while Lauren wears it with boldness, bravery and a grown-up femininity, the kind of maturity she had reached in real life early, through a natural sense of independence, but especially through life itself and love, her life with Bogart the greatest educator in the realities of life (she was 19 when they met, he was 25 years her senior). “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”
 

editorial sources: John Huston interview with Dan Ford, 1972; John Huston interview with Barbara Thomas, 1978; John Ford interview with Michel Ciment, 1984 (all interviews part of the book John Huston Interviews, edited by Robert Emmet Long). By Myself and Then Some, by Lauren Bacall. Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart, by Richard Schickel. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy

 

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This Summer We’re Channelling: Indiana Jones and The Raiders of The Lost Ark at 40

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Paramount Pictures

 
Forty years ago this summer Indiana Jones took the world on his first and greatest adventure on screen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. To this day, the film imagined by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas has remained, for many, the quintessential adventure movie. An exercise in pure cinematic style, Raiders of the Lost Ark has every bit of action held together by an irresistible mixture of boyish spirit and a romance with classic cinema. Drawn from forgotten Saturday matinee serials of the 30s, comics, and Howard Hawks films, Steven Spielberg created the kind of adventure he would have loved as a kid. Throughout his career, Hawks, too, had wanted “to merge his fictional ideals with his real life, a boy’s fantasy being played out every day”, as Todd McCarthy analyses in his book, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, something he always sought for in his adventure films, from Only Angels Have Wings to Hatari!.
 

Harrison Ford and Paul Freeman in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, 1981. Paramount Pictures

 
“I never wanted to get away from the B-movie, pulp feeling of the entire cliff-hanger era of the 40s and 50s, the old Republic serials”, Spielberg told Vanity Fair in February 2008. “I think one of the things we brought to the genre – and we didn’t coin the genre, it’s been around a lot longer than we’ve been around – but what we brought to the genre was our willingness to let our leading man to get hurt, and to express his pain and to get his mad out and to take pratfalls and sometimes be the but of his own jokes.”

When he is not a tweed-wearing archeology professor, Harrison Ford is a leather-jacketed temple raider, scouring the globe for treasures and artifacts, like the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the gold chest in which Moses supposedly stored the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Fearless and flawed, with a caustic spirit and dry humor and dressed in his trademark fedora, bullwhip and rumpled clothes, he is the less-than-perfect, unconventional hero with an Achilles heel for snakes, who can throw a punch but gets beaten up plenty in return, too, and who walks the fine line between the good side and the bad side. In fact, Indiana and his duplicitous French rival archeologist, Belloq (Paul Freeman), are rather “very much alike,” as the latter states. “Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the purer faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.”

I think that’s one of the reasons why the film has continued to bond with viewers, making Indiana highly identifiable, reaching so many people, such a wide and diversified audience, crossing generational boundaries. “The fact that it just keeps on giving is wonderful”, actor Paul Freeman recently told Variety this June, the month of the film’s 40th anniversary. Dressed in tweed, Indiana Jones is certainly the personification of the good guy, but in his adventurer outfit, he is the tough guy who could very well be thief or law, in the true vein of the film noir’s great anti-heros, who walked that grey zone and were defined by the same dress – the fedora an intrinsic part of their image – and dialogue and varying degrees of vulnerability, regardless of whether they played detective or criminal.

The heroine, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), isn’t the archetypal girl-in-distress either. Strong-headed, high-spirited and capable of taking care of herself, as well as the custodian of a jewel essential for locating the ark, she is the kind of feisty leading lady action heroine Spielberg liked when he was watching movies growing up, especially the movies of the 30s, “when women held their own against men, when they could win the day, like Irene Dunn, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyk”, Spielberg explained. “And writers knew how to write for women in the 30s and 40s.” And if they were Howard Hawks, they refused to yield to the expected Hollywood sentimentality and mawkishness, too. There is a frisky chemistry between Marion and Indy, the kind we see in Hawks’ films – because he liked his characters, men and women, “to be ready to spark when the fuse was lit” and he liked to depict how “a new couple sparked until they clicked”, that incipient attraction, insouciant confidence, youthful desire. We don’t know much about Indiana Jones’ and Marion’s past romance, but it is clear it was not a long-term one, which allows it to spark and surprise and fuses the audience’s interest and anticipation.
 

Karen Allen in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, 1981. Paramount Pictures

 
All that being said, what is the one thing that comes to the collective mind when we think of the character Indiana Jones? His look. Because nothing can make a character feel more like himself or herself than the clothes they are wearing. And that’s how we first meet Indy. We see his silhouette from behind, shaped by the leather jacket and fedora hat on the backdrop of the blue sky and the great unknown of the South American jungle. It’s this look, and especially the hat, that we identify Indy with. In an interview for The Fedora Lounge, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis encountered the research that went into the creation of Indiana’s costume. “Steven and I sat and watched a couple of movies together. We watched China, which is an Alan Ladd picture from the 1940s; we watched The Lost Treasure of the Incas, starring Charlton Heston as Harry Steele. It was made in 1952, and he [Heston] really wears the costume, more or less, of Indiana Jones. Then I watched The Greatest Show on Earth, in which Charlton Heston wears a brown leather jacket and a brown fedora, pretty much the costume of Indiana Jones. And if that wasn’t enough, Steven used to run Saturday morning adventure serials, where a lot of these guys, because it was just post-war, were wearing flight jackets and brown fedoras.”

Those flight jackets and fedoras bring to mind a favourite Howard Hawks film of mine, Only Angels Have Wings, having as characters men who are staring down death as they are flying dangerous missions over treacherous mountain terrain, come rain, shine or fog. The short landing strips are no less hazardous. It was a pioneering time, a time when the rules of aviation were just being learned. They have poor navigational equipment and makeshift planes, but they are hard-shelled and have an unconquerable spirit. It’s an electrifying, fast-paced, past-the-edge-of-yourself world, one of Howard Hawks’ fantasy worlds, a place for world-weary romanticism, borderline cynicism and crazy courage. They are united by their trust in each other, professionalism and a code of dressing. They all wear leather flight jackets. An aviator himself, Hawks sought to give his characters credibility, as tough guys and pilots, so he naturally turned to the flyer’s jacket, steeped in utility and far-from-perfect, hard-won heroism. Actually, I see a lot of Indiana Jones in Richard Barthelmess’ look in Only Angels, as seen in this piece I wrote about the film. He is wearing the perfect clothes for his mission. Perfect because he looks like himself and he looks real in his leather jacket and fedora. It’s like he’s always existed somewhere, not just on the written page of a script, and now he has made the acquaintance of the audience who has been long waiting for him.

Further elaborating on the costumes creation process, Nadoolman explained how Indy’s jacket, made of soft leather which she aged herself with sandpaper and a suede brush, had to be tight around the waist yet allow Harrison freedom of movement and of handling the whip, to have an athletic, masculine silhouette. As for the fedora, she had Harrison try on hundreds of grey, brown and black fedoras from Berman’s and Nathan’s in London (now Angel’s Costumiers), and she took the right crown height from one hat and the right brim width from another and made a bespoke fedora, one that has a life of its own.

“But we don’t create the icons, the audience creates the icons”, the costume designer concluded. “When you fell in love with Indiana Jones, I may have had a part in it, and Steven helped, but it’s the public that creates the image, it was the public that made him a hero.” But what they did do was to hold the visual reins and create a world that the audience did not know or only dreamed of and thrust them into it and into a feeling of adventure and fantasy.

 

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This Summer We’re Channelling: Léa Seydoux in “Saint Laurent”

Léa Seydoux in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

 
One July afternoon in 1968, Yves Saint Laurent met Loulou de la Falaise. They met at a tea party at the house of Fernando Sanchez at the Place de Furstenberg, in Paris. Fernando was part of Saint Laurent’s closed and exclusive world, his entourage, his clique, an old concept in Paris fashion. More than being a group of people who formed the beau monde, trapped in their own arrogant self-obsession, partaking recklessly of the excess, alcohol, drugs and casual sex that abounded in Paris in the 70’s, the clique also enabled designers to infiltrate walks of life hardly accessible to them. It was a way of establishing a link between them and the society, between them and the people who wore their clothes, and, especially in the case of Yves Saint Laurent, between him and the streets. For the designer, who was very reclusive, his clique represented an extension of his world that was divided between his fashion house and his home, bringing him a touch of reality while at the same time preserving the mystique of the name Yves Saint Laurent.

“That afternoon in July 1968, there was a young girl floating around the apartment, giggling madly behind a dandelion puff of hair,” recounts Alicia Drake in her book, The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, the moment Yves met Loulou de la Falaise. “She had the face and poise of a Burne-Jones portrait with none of the passive tragic overtones. She was filled with a sort of electric vitality. She was stoned and ravishing in Ossie Clark chiffon tunic and matching satin fly-away trousers, headscarf around her head and beads around her neck. […] He took in everything about her – the Bakst-inspired fauna print on chiffon, the way she stood with one arm flung up behind her against the door jamb, the wide-set blue eyes and narrow bone-structure. His eye was drawn to her tiny wrists and a bracelet she was wearing which he could have sworn was one of those metal bands they put on the corner of tables to hold down the tablecloth in the wind. It was; Loulou had taken it off the table at the Bistro Petit Saint Benoît and wore it as a Paris talisman.”
 

Léa Seydoux in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

 
In Marrakech, the wonder boy from Oran discovered, or rediscovered, the light, other colours, in the street, on the walls, in the clothing of the women of the Atlas. But Loulou was right there from early on, too. After their meeting in Paris, Yves invited Loulou to Marrakech, “where she arrived with a duffle bag out of which she pulled sarong after sarong after scrap of fabric, astonishing everyone with her outfits and imaginations”. She breathed new air, and colour, and fantasy and her own world into his aesthetic. She would become his inspiration, his muse, his motivation, his provocation. Yves’ style was French through and through. She challenged it with her eclectic tastes. She brought the outside world into the exclusive and closed world of Saint Laurent.

“She was a catalyst in Yves’ rediscovery of colour,” writes Alicia Drake. Influenced by Chanel, Saint Laurent had only used colour timidly in his collections – “There’s never any colour in Paris,” illustrator Joe Eula recounted the shouts of the press in one of his storyboards before an YSL show. “He had a phenomenal sense of colour,” Loulou is cited in the book, “but he needed me to jerk it out of his system. He always had it in him because he was brought up in colour, but then there was all that sort of good education and Parisian conformity. Most people think that if they use colour it won’t be comme in faut and I think I showed him that colour was not vulgar. I think I opened the doors for him. That is what creativity is: you use people to open doors that are your own. You do not copy other people, but they make things accessible within you.”

And Yves knew that he needed her and the mesmerising effect that she projected to feed his imagination and creativity. He had always, and always would, surrounded himself with women. He loved women, he loved to observe them and learn from them what they wanted. His obsession was not with fashion, but with the inner nature of women, and that was his radical change. Loulou “came along bearing both the lineage of the old world so dear to every couturier and, crucially, the cool swing of London.” She had both aristocratic bearing and free will, both innate elegance and excess, both beauty and dark sensuality, both mystery and enthusiasm. She had the wilderness and rebelliousness of the streets in her. Saint Laurent had already sensed that, he had already turned towards ready-to-wear because it was an opening on everyday life he personally had nothing to do with, and yet presented women with what they needed to change themselves and their style and their life and be free. And he knew how to discern the appeal of the new generation represented by Loulou.
 

Léa Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

 
The 1970s found haute couture at a crossroads. For the first time, its relevance was fervently questioned. Aristocracy and wealth had become démodé, “today only personality counts… ravishing personalities are most riveting things in the world – conversation, people’s interests, the atmosphere that they create around them,” Diana Vreeland proclaimed. Ready-to-wear was starting to dictate what women should wear. Alicia Drake’s book paints a profound, dramatic and truthful portrait of those times in her book (having Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld center stage), of the beauty and ugliness, fun and tragedy, seduction and stinginess of fashion, and its deep roots in and influence on everything surrounding it, from history and art, to politics, and especially to everything happening in the world.

Loulou de la Falaise had both English and French heritage. Her mother, Maxime Birley, married a French count, Alain de la Falaise, and moved to Paris after the war where she “owned one pair of jeans and a push-up bra”. She started to work at Schiaparelli to make a living, then worked for Paquin and Faith and eventually became a styliste, the French term French designers prefer to designer, working freelance for the house of Chloé. Loulou had the independent spirit of her mother and she pursued her own path in fashion not only as a way to find her own independence, but to escape an unhappy childhood. After her parents’ divorce, she and her brother Alexis were sent to foster families and then to boarding school in England. She was 21 that summer that brought her to Paris. Loulou’s exuberance was a way to fight hardship; therein lies her vibrant force. “Loulou’s force also lay in her ability to cut herself off from reality and escape inside her imagination”.
 

“Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

 
Back in Paris, Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise became inseparable, both as friends, and at work, too. But, more importantly for the name of Yves Saint Laurent, Loulou became the embodiment of the YSL collections, of the YSL woman.

Whether it was her wedding look of golden-toed sandals worn over white socks, “huge white bouffant harem pants caught beneath the knee, white organza wrap, a mass of beads, a white turban stabbed with an apricot feather and large diamond brooch”, or her wedding ball outfit, “wrapped in an acre of midnight-blue chiffon shot with gold, bangles up and down her arms, teetering in a pair of high silver heels”, or her dressed in “a sharp black velvet jacket, waist cinched in a man’s belt, man’s white shirt, tartan scarf and diamond and jade earrings”, or her wearing the YSL Cossack hat and boots, or the gold tassels and pagoda shoulders from the Opium collection, Loulou de la Falaise met her own inherent, intuitive and incredible style with that of the genius of YSL, on the background of the changing times.

In the film Saint Laurent (2014), director Bertrand Bonello plunged into the era of effervescence and madness of the 1970s and into the mind, creative genius and demons of its leading designer, played with such intensity by Gaspard Ulliel. Léa Seydoux has the luminous presence and grace and exuberance to carry out the role of Loulou de la Falaise. Léa Seydoux is a modern Loulou de la Falaise. In contrast to Jalil Lespert’s film Yves Saint Laurent, released the same year and where Laura Smet played Loulou, Léa Seydoux’s character is truly seen as being part of Yves’ life. She is always there for him, as a friend, or in his studio, with her turban on, at every excess, every success and every devastating fall, just as it comes through in the book The Beautiful Fall – “We lived together for thirty years. I saw him more than any other person.”
 

Léa Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel in “Saint Laurent”, 2014. Mandarin Films, EuropaCorp

 
Saint Laurent will forever be remembered for having made a cult out of ready-to-wear when he launched his Rive Gauche label to connect with the women in their every day wardrobes and their life on the street and for putting a large number of women into trousers, adapting many garments from the male wardrobes into female items – “You are the only one today, Mr. Saint Laurent,” one of the characters, a loyal client, trying on a trouser suit, hair let loose, hands in pockets, lipstick on at Yves’ own indications, says to him in the film Saint Laurent, referring to the way his clothes made woman feel and to the way they reflected the feeling of the time. It’s a beautiful moment in the film this one, when she is transformed right under our eyes, just through clothes and through being looked at by Yves.

But in 1976, the designer presented his haute couture Ballet Russes collection, which he later considered if not his best, most certainly his most beautiful – for the film, costume designer Anaïs Romand redid 35 pieces or so from the collection. Once again, it seemed that he set out to change the course of fashion and to set a new standard of luxury. “It was my answer to the press which had disqualified the haute couture trade as old fashioned and antiquated,” he would say. His sable-trimmed Cossack coats in gold lamé, bright babushka dresses, gypsy skirts piped in gold, luxuriously embroidered waistcoats and tunics, whisper-thin glittering blouses with full sleeves, and golden Cossack boots were inspired, Saint Laurent confessed, by everything from Delacroix’s odalisques, Ingres’s women, and van Eyck’s Woman with a Pearl, to Degas’s black-corseted ballerinas, the Civil War, and von Sternberg’s Dietrich. “For daywear, everything came from traditional cuts found in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Morocco. That was the source of the cutting that, along with colour, makes it youthful.” But I see Loulou de la Falaise in that collection, too. Beautiful excess and youth.
 
 

editorial sources: The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, by Alicia Drake; Yves Saint Laurent, by Fondation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent; Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, by Lisa Immordino Vreeland; Eula, by Cathy Horyn

 

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This Summer We’re Channelling: Catherine Deneuve in “Le sauvage”

Catherine Deneuve in “Le sauvage”, 1975. Lira Films, Produzioni Artistiche Internazionali

 
They meet in Caracas by chance. Nelly (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman who is about to marry Vittorio, but realises she doesn’t want to and runs away from him. Martin (Yves Montand) is a middle-age man who left behind his career as a famous perfumer to seek out a more tranquil life on an island, off the coast of Guaira, Venezuela. He gets her out of trouble. She gets him into more trouble. Montand perfectly offsets the antic behaviour of Deneuve.

Young, free-willing and beautiful, with energy to spare and perfectly articulated rapid-fire speaking, Deneuve sweeps you off your feet. You end up following her around, because she never stops, she is in constant motion, out-running and out-talking Montand. In an interview between her and the director of the film, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Deneuve confessed that talking fast was a family defect, remembering how “Truffaut used to say that my coming from a numerous family with four children, all girls, may have led to that. It was always a competition among sisters, who to take the first place and the second place. Words played a major role.” She also mentioned the influence of the American screwball comedies and the fact that what she loved about them was the rapid succession of events and talk. The screwball moments in Le sauvage are beautifully pulled off, and she glides through them so naturally, and are in beautiful contrast to the quiet moments when she is alone that look like she has just stepped out of a painting or to the scene when she quietly tells Montand that she wants to stay with him on the island.

Le sauvage feels like the movie that liberated Deneuve’s own personality on the screen. “I am shocked when people talk about me and sum me up as: blonde, cold, and solemn,” she would say about her image of porcelain beauty imprinted in the audience’s collective memory. “To film, the beauty of Catherine Deneuve is a joy, an enlightenment,” Jean-Paul Rappeneau said in an interview for Télérama.
 

Catherine Deneuve in “Le sauvage”, 1975. Lira Films, Produzioni Artistiche Internazionali

 
For almost six decades, Deneuve has been the embodiment of the French screen icon, of its allure, sophistication and cool and quiet elegance, having worked from the very beginning, the 1960s and 1970s, with some of the best European directors, such as Buñuel (Belle de jour, Tristana), Truffaut (Mississippi Mermaid, Le dernier métro), Polanski (Repulsion). Most notably in Belle de jour, Catherine Deneuve’s image and sexuality was signaled through clothes and through an association with fashion. The exclusivity of her YSL wardrobe (the film ensued a long-term, lifelong friendship with Catherine Deneuve, their relationship becoming an integral part of the cult of Saint Laurent) forms its own narrative in Buñuel’s fetishistic film (“My fascination with fetishism was already obvious in the first scenes of El and the boot scene in Diary of a Chambermaid,” Buñuel wrote in his autobiography, My Last Sigh), where her highly polished surface and her severe and restrictive clothes act as barriers to sexual expression as well as the very means for reaching sexual fulfillment. “The novel is very melodramatic,” Buñuel further elaborated in his book about Joseph Kessel’s novel Belle de jour, “and it offered me the chance to translate Séverine’s fantasies into pictorial images as well as to draw a serious portrait of a young female bourgeois masochist.” Saint Laurent’s Designs for Séverine “pitched subversive chic against a frigid conservatism with devastating success,” wrote Alicia Drake in her excellent book, The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris.
 

Catherine Deneuve in “Le sauvage”, 1975. Lira Films, Produzioni Artistiche Internazionali

 
Her image in Le sauvage is hardly associated with fashion, and that’s part of the reason why this role is so fresh and different and liberating. After the opening sequence, when she is wearing an elegant white dress at the party celebrating her up-coming wedding, she dresses in jeans, white shirt and trench coat when she runs away. Every woman’s attire, the most timeless of them all. But, in movies, the trench has played such an ambiguous garment, impersonating so many roles, and here the trench coat can also hide the secret of someone who plans something dangerous, or just to change her life. Then we see her in a striped shirt dress for a big part of the action – there were four copies of the dress with different degrees of wear depending on the story progression. After her dress is torn to shreds after a plunge in the ocean, she practically lives in Martin’s shirts, t-shirts and cardigan which she steals off the hanging wire. Oversized and practical, they are not just the perfect attire for the island, but by wearing not just masculine but men’s clothes, she creates this alternate allure, becoming much more feminine, and more attractive than she has ever been on screen.
 

Catherine Deneuve in “Le sauvage”, 1975. Lira Films, Produzioni Artistiche Internazionali

 
 

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