Closer: Marie Trintignant in Claude Chabrol’s “Betty”

Marie Trintignant in Betty, 1992. CED Productions, Canal+

 

When we see Betty in the opening scene entering a shady bar, her disheveled face, the void in her look, the bags under her eyes show us a woman at a very low point in her life, yet her white Chanel-style deux-pièce immediately hints at the good life. We already ask ourselves who she is and what’s happened to her. She chain-smokes and binge-drinks and when she is picked up by someone pretending to be a doctor, he drives her to Versailles, to a bar called Le Trou (The Hole), another dingy place frequented by all sorts of strange characters. She keeps on smoking and drinking, deliriously harking back to the moment that brought her to this state – Chabrol doesn’t let in on very much, he doesn’t give us the whole picture, just Betty’s face in close-up and snippets of dialogue, on the recurring music of Jonasz, and then cutting from a beautiful, made-up face in the flashback to the wreck it’s become of it in the bar – the clothes however are the same. Marie Trintignant’s face becomes one incredible character. Eventually, a glamorous middle-aged woman, Laure (an Yves Saint Laurent-clad Stéphane Audran), steps in to save her from the doctor, who turns out to be a junky. Unable to bear the painful memories anymore, Betty passes out and Laure takes her to her suite in a luxurious hotel. When Betty wakes up, Laure offers her accommodation for as long as she needs it, taking her under her wing. In fragmentary flashbacks, Laure and the viewers slowly get to know who she is.
 

Marie Trintignant in Betty, 1992. CED Productions, Canal+

 

Chabrol has a strong stamp of individuality on his films. Hitchcockian and thriller impulses, shrewd humour, bourgeois mores… these are cinematic phrases that Chabrol prefers and which we encounter here as well. But through the character of Betty, closely inspired by Georges Simenon’s novel by the same name, and making the viewer see her story through her own eyes, the filmmaker throws the audience into the unknown.

We get to know that Betty married into wealth only to find out she was trapped in a world of domesticity by her handsome husband and his domineering mother. And as soon as she becomes pregnant with the couple’s first child, she is no longer seen for what she is, but just as the bearer, and then the mother, of her husband’s children. As a pregnant woman, she is advised by her family to stay in bed, and her mother-in-law and husband are always right there to watch over her. Even the role of mother is in name only, because the children are exclusively taken care of by the nanny: they are nursed, fed and only brought in to their parents for a good-night’s kiss. In the bourgeoisie world, the role of wife and mother is stifling. In fact, Betty had worn Guy (Yves Lambrecht), her husband, about her unruly nature, about the kind of libertine life she’s led, when he proposed to her. “You don’t understand,… that life, I enjoyed it,” she had told him. He said he understood and that they would start a new life together. She agreed to marry him, at first believing it could work, but soon realising she got trapped in an existence she had already felt she wasn’t cut out for and there was nothing she could do to change anything.

There are several shots that are incredible in establishing how disabled the bourgeoise role of a mother is: one is when Betty looks from her remote dinner table seat through the kitchen door where the children have their meal at the children’s table. Some of them are crying, yet no other adult seems to be aware of or bothered by that. Another moment is when the nanny brings the girls to the living room where Betty, Guy and his mother are, and when the older girl expresses to her mother her wish to stay a little longer with her parents, the mother-in-law steps in saying they should never give in to the children’s demands. Any close or prolonged contact between Betty and her children is forbidden. This realisation is so striking for Betty, that she becomes impassive to everything happening around her and takes refuge in drinking and carrying on affairs. It’s a return of sorts to her old life.

When she is caught in flagrante by her husband and mother-in-law, she is forced to sign a contract stating that she abandons her children and disappears from their lives. That is the moment that provokes her downfall, her inner turmoil reaching the highest depth, the moment before we meet her.
 

Betty, 1992. Directed by Claude Chabrol. CED Productions, Canal+

 

“I remember two long conversations with George Simenon that went on into the night,” Claude Chabrol recalled in the production notes that appeared during the theatrical release of Betty. “For Simenon, it was not our intelligence that proved the superiority of the ‘human animal’ (he loved this term). At this time – this was in the sixties – he was more fascinated with man’s survival instinct, a topic which greatly inspired him. It was during this time that he wrote Betty.” Betty’s thoughts turn from animal to social (when she marries and takes on the role of mother and wife), to moral and human (when she has remorses for sacrificing her daughters), then to animal again (when she resurfaces in the end), Chabrol explained in a commentary on the film. Betty gets away with her true nature. She is untamed. Her husband and her mother-in-law try to tame her, but they don’t succeed. Chabrol doesn’t try, he lets her be. Is she the victim of what Laure calls the “dead weight of society” or a monstrous and unworthy wife and mother? Chabrol doesn’t answer. Instead, he masterfully, through the very precise succession of the story, makes the viewer look a little closer and forbearing, through her own eyes, at Betty. And he does everything in his power to save her, even if it is at the expense of another woman.
 

Stéphane Audran and Marie Trintignant in Betty, 1992. CED Productions, Canal+

 
Stéphane Audran’s Laure is the one who lets Betty live. She is a former nurse, as she tells Betty, who, after being married to a doctor for twenty years, until his death, left her home in Lyon and retired to Versailles, where she lives in a grandiose hotel suite and frequents Le Trou, whose owner is her younger lover, Mario (Jean-François Garreaud). Laure dresses in Yves Saint Laurent, and I think her wardrobe could be well described by the words Marie Colmant and Gérard Lefort used in Libération, in 1991, for Saint Laurent’s latest collection: “There is not an ounce of bluff or showoff, not a line that doesn’t fall exactly where you least expect it, not a colour that is not a perfect red or faultless cobalt. In short, it’s cool, controlled, imperial.” She is still the tall, cool, stunning Stéphane Audran, with imperious looks and detached manner that dominated the earlier films of Chabrol, from Les Biches and La femme infidèle, to Le boucher and Juste avant la nuit (often dressed in Karl Lagerfeld or YSL).

But whereas in those films she used to be the unconventional burgeoise woman, the kind that men committed adultery or murder for, in Betty she is a lost soul, too, a woman who dedicated herself entirely to her husband and who has never found out who she is. Betty and Laure share their stories as they keep the hard liquor coming, but what Laure doesn’t realise is that Betty, by recalling and confessing in Laure her descent, she starts to build up the strength to resurface again. And what Laure doesn’t also realise is that she will be the final piece in the puzzle that will enable the undomesticated bourgeoisie young woman to be free.
 

Yves Lambrecht and Marie Trintignant in Betty, 1992. CED Productions, Canal+

 
 

Throughout the film, we often see Betty dressed in white (Gilles and Papy were the costumers for Marie Trintignant’s character). Sometimes it’s black and white, as if a reaffirmation of high-class elegance and status, but somehow the white always stands out. It’s white when we meet her, a philandering soul on the streets of Paris, it’s white when Guy proposes to her and she warns him about her tue nature and former life, it’s white when we see her with her daughters, warned not to give in and tend to them (that’s nanny’s business), and it’s white again when she leaves with Laure’s lover. It’s always white, but somehow different. Because there’s a striking contrast between her constraining two-piece suit, the only clothes we see her in in the present (everything else is in flashback) and the only clothes Laure sees her in, and the feminine, girly, flowing white dress she puts on when she leaves the hotel with Mario. She doesn’t wear that dress because it is a triumph of love over despair, but because it is a reaffirmation of the survival of her animal instinct. She hasn’t changed, she has just found a way to be what she wants to be.

Laure is wearing black when she sees Betty and Mario leave together from behind the curtains of her glamorous hotel room. “I love black because it affirms, designs, and styles. A woman in a black dress is a pencil stroke,” said Yves Saint Laurent. Dressed in black and just through body language – the stone look in her eyes from behind the curtains, discretely pulling the curtain – Laure pens the closure even before the film ends.

 

Betty, 1992. Directed by Claude Chabrol. CED Productions, Canal+

 

“In many of Simenon’s novels, the central mystery, and the one that is never completely resolved, is the human spirit,” Chabrol concluded. “This is consistent with his creation of Betty, the character and the novel: a human being to be explored, yet whose secrets could not be full known or understood.”

Immediately after Betty and Mario leave, Laure checks out of her hotel. We soon thereafter find out that she has suddenly died at her home in Lyon at the age of 49. The end credits roll on the background of a Betty wearing black, taking dead fish out of the aquarium in Mario’s bar. And now we remember the first moment Laure and Betty met in the bar, Laure pulling a chair to sit at Betty’s table, with her back at the aquarium, lending her a helping hand. Every time they were in the bar, there was a view of the aquarium. And we also remember the moment Betty recounted to Laure about Thérèse, a girl from her childhood that Betty looked up to. Thérèse was a little older and sexually initiated and Betty wanted to grow up faster and be just like her. “She was always in black, she only wore a black dress,” Betty had told Laure. We hear Chabrol’s own words narrate: “Laure had died because Betty had to survive. It was one or the other… And Betty had won.” Jonasz’s Je voulais te dire que je t’attends starts to play again as we are still trying to unfold the secrets of the human spirit.

 

Marie Trintignant and Jean-François Garreaud in Betty, 1992. CED Productions, Canal+

 
 

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Read Instead… in Print


 
Read instead… in print is about a good book about cinema or filmmakers. No discursive, pretentious analyses, no verbose scrutiny. Because the idea is to invite you to read the book, not read about it here. But instead of using social media, I use my journal. Back to basics. Take it as a wish to break free of over-reliance on social media (even if it’s just for posting a photo of a good book) for presenting my work, cultural finds and interests. These are things to be enjoyed as stand-alone pieces in a more substantial and meaningful way than showing them in the black hole of Instagram thronged with an audience with a short attention span. This is also a look through my voluminous collection of books about film that I use as research in my adamant decision to rely less and less on the online and more on more on print materials.
 
 

“It takes a magnificent filmmaker to thoroughly corrupt an audience.”

 

Read instead…in print #19

Quentin Tarantino didn’t go to film school. But he went to the movies. He has been going to the movies from a very early age – “Quentin, I worry more about you watching the news. A movie’s not going to hurt you,” his mother said when Quentin asked her how came that she took him with her to see movies other parent weren’t allowing their children see. And now he has finally written a book about some of the films he grew up with. Movies from the 70s, the greatest film decade the American cinema has ever had. But these are not all movies you usually find on look-alike listings, but movies Tarantino was drawn to and appreciates from various reasons; they are his personal choices. Watching movies is a deeply personal experience. In this fake, politically correct, meritricious medium that cinema and society are struggling in at the moment, Tarantino has the guts (just like he does with his movies) to inspire to think by ourselves and watch every movie with an open mind and with our own eyes, to let ourselves be surprised, to look a little closer.

In Cinema Speculation, he observes, reflects, wonders, speculates. It is asking the questions, rather than answering them. Tarantino loves to talk about movies, characters, specifics, different scenes the way only a true film passionate does. Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker in complete control of his art, yet when he writes about his favourite films, he does it without the pretentiousness of the deep knowledge he masters. He gets the reader interested in the film somehow, without following a certain line. He carries you away, he expands your vision, he makes it fun and exciting. It’s a breath of fresh air, … vital, I might even add.

 
 

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Cate Blanchett Is the Lead, but Nina Hoss Is the First Violin in Tár

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features

 

Tár tells the story of (fictional) renowned composer and conductor Lidya Tár, who, on the brink of recording the symphony of her life, has to face the consequences of her past actions. Tár is a wonderful piece of cinema, the way it is filmed, the way it takes its time to tell the story, the way it makes you part of this classical music world without demanding your speciality knowledge, the way Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s music and lack of music guide you through… Everything forms this perfect synergy. It’s probably the film of last year that made me feel the most that immersive power of cinema while watching it. This is a film that takes the audience seriously. Surprising, free in its thoughts, precise in execution. Cate Blanchett is remarkable as Tár. She is Tár. Domineering antiheroine, brilliant, intense musician, ruthless and authoritative in her pursuit of power. But the surprise came from somewhere else: Nina Hoss. Not because I was surprised by her performance – I’ve long admired her films – but because realising she was in the film, I hoped this film would surprise and take you on a ride without your knowing much what to expect.
 

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features

 

It has much to do with Nina Hoss’s screen presence. I love watching Nina Hoss on screen. Her presence is magnetic, her face a mystery. Of a scintillating quietude, of a pensive livelihood. There is always a depth you search for in her characters. You won’t get all your answers, you have to dig deeper, you have to go back and watch it again.

I first saw Nina Hoss in Homeland, and when I did, I had the same feeling I had when I watched her in Tár. Clare Danes was the lead there, and she was amazing, but it was Nina Hoss that brought something else to the plot, a little bit of the unknown. Then I discovered Christian Petzold’s films, many of them with Nina Hoss as protagonist. And what a revelation she was! Petzold both writes and directs his movies, and he is very good at creating microcosms with his films. In Barbara, she is a doctor who works in a hospital in a small provincial town, in 1980. This is her punishment for attempting to emigrate to the West. She used to work in the biggest hospital in Berlin. Now she is kept under constant surveillance, secluded in the country, with nobody to trust. She does her job systematically, patiently, and she waits. We are waiting, too, patiently, as the tension builds. You can’t see past her inscrutable face. She never shows fear, or her inner turmoil. “It was a role where I knew there would be no possibility of talking much, to explain her,” Nina Hoss revealed in an interview for Film Comment after the film’s release, in 2012. “I would have to do a different kind of work, to make it interesting, her being silent, but always being present. I had to create a backstory. It was very crucial for this part, that I knew why she tries to hide her true self. I thought she was [originally] a very lively, positive person.” You don’t see but feel the threat she faces through the subtleness of her fear. And that’s a pretty mighty feel to project on screen.

In Phoenix (2014), Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a German-Jewish cabaret singer who survives the concentration camp but her face gets disfigured and has to undergo reconstructive surgery, then tries to return to her old life in Berlin. Her husband, who is the one who might have turned her in, doesn’t recognise her and “hires” her as his wife so that he can claim her inheritance. Christian Petzold skillfully merges suspense, revenge, trauma, desperation, destruction, and, under his direction, a subject that has been (much too) often approached in cinema, upends convention, and that has much to do with the way it is told and with the way Nina Hoss carries the film, a wounded human being in the aftermath of a disaster who has the grace to pull off that sublime ending scene. And to think that a perfect ending is not that easy to come by in cinema…
 

Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features

 

In Tár, Nina Hoss plays Sharon, Lydia Tár’s partner. They share both a personal and a professional life together. Sharon is the concertmaster in the Berlin orchestra conducted by Tár. It is the most sought after position in a philharmonic (something I wasn’t aware of but subsequently found out from an interview with Nina Hoss in Vanity Fair), even more than than that of a conductor – and it’s even more unlikely to be held by a woman. The concertmaster is the true musical leader, the conductor’s translator to and liaison with the orchestra, the one with very wide responsibilities, the one who must know when to act with authority and when to act as the orchestra’s voice. Not only that, but this is a position that is constantly challenged, everyone is after it, so one must always prove one’s worth, as Nina Hoss further explained.

Sharon is the first violin. And the fact that she fills that chair says a lot about her character even if it isn’t articulated in words – and although the viewer may not be familiar with the exact workout of an orchestra, as I wasn’t, the importance of her position is obvious. And it tells just about everything about Sharon and her tenacity and skills. Restrained and calculated, she is the steely enabler. Sharon knows and understands more than she lets us see. Yet, she makes sure she is seen. She does not have much on screen time, and yet, with just a gaze or a raised eyebrow, she exerts power over everyone, including Lydia. She knows, and lets it happen. She is the key element of the film. Sharon and Lydia are not that different. Behind a powerful woman, there is a more powerful woman.
 

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in Tár, 2022. Focus Features

 
 

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Interview with Avatar Costume Designer Deborah L. Scott: “The Process Is the Same. You Build the Character!”

Avatar: The Way of Water, 2022. 20th Century Studios

 

When Avatar was released in 2009, it was a game changer. A film of tremendous ambition, singularity of vision and breakthrough technical achievement. But it took more than that to catch the public’s attention the way it did: the film has a story, and it is and remains a classic story with an impactful message. A good soldier goes native, finding peace among the people he has been trained to believe are his enemy. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is part of a mission of the U.S. Armed Forces that have colonised Pandora, a moon inhabited by the harmless indigenous Na’vi species, but rich in a valuable mineral. In order to be able to land and survive in the hostile atmosphere of Pandora, humans use “avatars”, genetically engineered bodies that look like the Na’vi and that remain wired up in a trance-like state on the ship. Using state-of-the-art and carefully employed film techniques, James Cameron took us on a journey to a new world, a lush and totally imaginary jungle that looks so natural and alive. Avatar invented its own language.

Avatar: The Way of Water takes us ten years in the future of Jake Sully and Ney’tiri on Pandora. Jake has left his human body for good to become a Na’vi, the blue, bioluminescent humanoid beings with golden eyes that move, convincingly, with the elegance of a panther. He and Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldaña) are now married and have four children, and have lived a peaceful life, tightly connected to the natural world around them, until the “sky people” attack their planet again. Forced to leave their home, they go to explore the unknown lands of Pandora…and its underseas. And once again, James Cameron continues to clear unknown lands in cinematic technical innovation – in the fourteen years since the first Avatar, there have been only a few truly notable 3D films – to submerge us into this new fully realised world.

The motion capture – the technique of electronic sensors placed on an actor in a lycra suit, whose movements are stored on a computer, then reconstituted and modeled in virtual images in a given setting – plays a primordial role in the cinematic revolution that is Avatar. But what we see on screen is a completely different thing. We see characters who have a story to tell. And costume undergoes its own groundbreaking evolution in Avatar while still operating within the mise en scène as an aid of character and narrative. In a unique filmmaking effort, Deborah L. Scott, who also collaborated with James Cameron on the first Avatar, invented a new costume paradigm, making detailed and finely crafted principal costumes and thousands of bespoke pieces and props that were then digitised for the film (one bespoke costume for each digital costume). In addition, she created the live-action costumes and helped customise the motion capture suits for the actors’ performances.

Over the course of five years, Deborah and her team hand weaved, stitched, beaded, embroidered, and braided, using a craft-based sampling-led design process. They then blended it with the technological innovations of her collaborators at Wētā FX to help bring the Na’vi of Pandora to life. Imagination, artistry, skill and technology all blend to create a unique and rich culture and to weave the material reality into Pandora.

Deborah L. Scott won the Oscar for her first collaboration with James Cameron, Titanic, and her past projects include such memorable films as Back to the Future, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Heat and The Minority Report. It is an honour to have Deborah as my guest today, where she goes into detail for her work on Avatar, those simple yet iconic Back to the Future costumes and how it is like to be on a Steven Spielberg movie set.

 

Costume designer Deborah L. Scott

 

Avatar was a revolutionary film, and the costumes were just the same. With Avatar: The Way of Water, it’s once again a brand new horizon. What was different in the way you approached the costumes now, as opposed to the first film?

We knew from experiences on the first film, that we were going to need to build all the costumes, props, accessories, and wigs, Na’vi and live action for this film. The technical advances since film one and the complexity of the designs for film two dictated this. We built everything to human scale (not the Na’vi scale) to allow for real-world use and testing. We found this was the best way to get the proper information passed along to the VFX team.
 
 


“The process of building the costumes is exactly the same as
any movie, even if they will only be seen in a digital format.
You build the character!”

 
 

Are the directors usually a big part of the costume process or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution? The 3D of James Cameron is in a league of its own. He takes you on a journey and reminds us that a movie is made of many moving parts that harmoniously come together to tell the story. How does his filmmaking influence your creative process?

With an exacting and groundbreaking director like Jim, the teams are all asked to work at a very high level and we are supported getting there. The whole artistic team World Builds and Clan builds. Then it is mostly up to costumes (under our director’s guidance) to Clan build, Family builds and Character Build. We talked a lot about the characters and their journeys. Then it was up to me to design them and seek Jim’s approval as we moved forward.
 

Avatar: The Way of Water, 2022. 20th Century Studios

 

A costume designer’s job is to reinforce the story and help the actor form an identity of his/her character. But how does the process of building a digital costume go? And how does the collaboration with the performance actors go in a film like Avatar? What do they wear to get into characters, to help them get the feel and motion of the characters? Because there is so much more than visual effects and technology to it.

Yes! I am glad that you understand this. The process of building the costumes is exactly the same as any movie, even if they will only be seen in a digital format. You build the character! There is a hand in hand with the performers, as they must understand and be able to feel the costumes, props, and hair, even though they mostly wear only performance capture suits. This is one of the reasons we build all these things, to inform performance. The actors see all the designs and can wear the garments as they are made to fit them. For performance capture, we would make reference costumes so as not to cover the markers on the capture suits. Extensive motion tests are filmed as well.

There is much more than visual effects and technology to it. We are always mindful of the process, but the clothing can stand alone as any movie does. We design, and make all the costumes, props, accessories, and wigs, and then we feed everything down the digital pipeline with the performances.
 

How much research, how much imagination, how much handwork went into the costuming of this extraordinary, unique world? Did you use any real life references for the Na’vi tribe, and for the Metcayina water tribe?

Extensive research was done worldwide on clans that live on and near the water. This all informs the design from a real-world perspective. For example, the Metkayina were mostly pulled from all of Polynesia, and as far as Hawaii, New Zealand and Samoa, etc. It is a tremendous amount of hard work to research as completely as possible, and then I was allowed to let my imagination go. Which is a tremendous amount of fun, but also difficult so that you stay on task, creatively, artistically and practically. I was fortunate to have the wonderful Weta Workshop for most of the building of the costumes. The combination of old-world handcrafts and innovative technology were new and thrilling to everyone. We went to new and unique places for sure!
 

Back to the Future, 1985. Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

 
 

“Fantasy, when you have to use pretty much only
your imagination, can be the most challenging and enriching.
But contemporary costume can be very satisfying.
You just don’t get as much attention for it.”

 
 

You have worked on other memorable films, but one in particular also caught the public’s imagination on a whole new level than the rest: Back to the Future. The costumes were very much of the times, and yet they became iconic, they became those characters. How did you work with Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to shape up those characters? And when does a film costume become iconic?

A film costume only becomes iconic when many things come together. A film that captures the imagination of the public, a character performed by a brilliant actor, a great script that informs us all, and then the right costume to accent all these things. All of the creative and brilliant people that I had the good fortune to work with on this project were amazing. To create this world, everyone was on board. When I watch it now, I can’t believe how kooky Chris Lloyd is, in performance and look… but they go together! And Michael became as iconic as it gets… maybe not as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn’s black dress but still memorable. And the looks don’t seem too dated either. Such kismet!
 

E. T. The extraterrestrial, 1982. Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

 

Another science fiction film, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, has triumphantly continued to demonstrate its universal appeal since its release in 1982. Again, the costumes are simple and yet they became iconic, the sum of all those elements you have pointed out above. I am mainly referring to the children’s costumes, of course, because one of the great things about this film is Spielberg’s approach to filming it, with the camera always at the eye level of the children, from whose perspective the events unfold. What is your most memorable experience from working on E.T.?

I loved the scene where Elliot is leading E.T. into the house. This is one example of watching Steven nurture not only the actors, but the set as well. Being there at those kinds of moments was really special.
 

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Titanic, which was your first collaboration with James Cameron and won you the Oscar. Do you have a favourite costume from the film?

That is a difficult question. When I rewatch it, there are moments that I have forgotten and come back to me. I think, in general, the thrill of having all the characters and background artists together in the formal dining room was certainly a high point and a lot of work! I always return to Kates’s suit and purple hat. What a moment Jim made of it! The teen’s fashion of the time was quite fleeting and she was lifted from an absolute fashion moment in time. It says everything about the start of her character’s journey. Beautiful, finessed, complete, masculine, yet feminine and a bit over the top. She was going to make it in a man’s world, for sure.
 

Titanic, 1997. 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures

 

Kate’s costumes in Titanic had this incredible transformative power, it definitely has a character arc in costumes. In a film like Avatar, costumes are employed differently, and yet Avatar: The Way of Water was not only a continuation, but also a departure from Avatar. You added something to the story. Are we to expect the same thing from Avatar 3?

Absolutely! We continue with the Sully family and their journeys, together and alone, with the Metkyina and add in two more very special clans, that I am very excited to have designed!!
 

In any good film costume design is relevant and defining in telling the story. But is it true that the historical films are usually more fascinating in a visual way and more enriching for a designer?

They can certainly be more noticeable and fun! Exploring all those time periods and reproducing them to help the narrative of the film be told. But certainly, fantasy, when you have to use pretty much only your imagination, can be the most challenging and enriching. But I do have to say, hitting the exact right note on a contemporary costume can be very satisfying. You just don’t get as much attention for it.
 

They say that every film would be and would look different if it had been made by another costume designer. Would you do differently any of your films?

I’m not sure if I would do anything differently… but if I had to do any of them over again, I am sure I could come up with other ideas. The choices are always vast on any project, as long as they build character and establish the narrative visually.
 

Thank you, Deborah, for taking us on this film costume journey.

 
 

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January Newsletter: An Extraordinary Life, An Ordinary Man, and Finding Alain Delon

Photo to the right: David C. Phillips, print available on shop.classiq.me

 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal
(unless otherwise stated)

 
 

”Even though that may not be okay for you, it’s okay
for me. I just get so pissed off when everyone imposes their
standards and evaluations and their remembrances of what
they worked on, what they did, and they assume that’s
the way it happened for me, too.”

Paul Newman, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

 
 

Photo to the right: Nadya Pajarillo, print available on shop.classiq.me

 

Viewing

L’insoumis, 1964
Alain Cavalier

The Smiths have this image of an immovable Alain Delon on the floor on the cover of their The Queen Is Dead album. I have always been intrigued by that cover, and yet I didn’t want to look into it, I didn’t want to find out what film it was from, just waiting to one day come across the film and have that image revealed to me. I have finally come across that film. It is L’insoumis, a film I knew nothing about when I started watching it, for the reason that it was just one of Alain Delon’s films I had somehow overlooked. And suddenly, there it was that image of Alain Delon, that for years had remained unplaceable. I loved the film. It has this unperceivable quality to it. It also has some incredibly shot action scenes and hauntingly beautiful close-ups of Delon. But it is the way the story builds up until that final scene that simply erupts in this wordless, powerful moment, that stays with you.
 

Tár, 2022
Todd Field

I have to admit I have mixed feeling about this film, which tells the story of renowned composer and conductor Lidya Tár, who, on the brink of recording the symphony of her life has to face the consequences of her past actions. On the one hand, Tár is a wonderful piece of cinema, the way it is filmed, the way it takes its time to tell the story (something that so many films of today rampantly lack), the way every set and scene are impeccably thought out, the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir that is a character in itself (the silences throughout the film are just as important as the music), the performances: Cate Blanchett remarkable in the role of Tár, but also a favourite of mine, Nina Hoss, as well as the rest of the cast really. Everything forms this perfect synergy. It’s probably the film of last year that made me feel the most that immersive power of cinema while watching it, feeling like a fly on the wall. And yet, I have to be honest here and say that there are certain parts of the story (an original screenplay by Todd Field) that are maybe too intricately woven into the realities of our times, namely the feminist and genre issues. And that would have been fine, too, were they not so clearly formulated and spelt out.
 

Escape from New York, 1981
John Carpenter

1997. Manhattan is a walled maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane. But break in Snake Plissken does. He is a criminal, former war hero, who is chosen for his skills to rescue the president of the United States whose plane has crashed in New York City. Kurt Russell plays Plissken and John Carpenter said Plissken could not have been played by anybody else. And here is why this sci-fi works the way it does: “Right now Manhattan is Disneyland,” Carpenter remarked in an interview with The Flashback Files. “It’s fake. Everything’s great there, so it really wouldn’t work. Escape from New York is really a movie of the seventies. That was when I wrote it. New York was going through some real problems then. A lot of crime, a lot of decay. It was a whole different place.”
 

Starman, 1981
John Carpenter

Another John Carpenter sci-fi, Starman challenges once more the genre and I have talked about it at length here.
 

Reversal of Fortune, 1990
Barbet Schroeder

Based on real life events, this is the story of Claus von Bulow’s two trials on the charge of attempting to murder his wife. Sunny von Bulow fell into an irreversible coma on a January morning and the family and police suspected foul play, with Claus as prime suspect. By the end of the film you don’t quite get the answers you were expecting, and that’s the beauty of it, especially that it’s narrated by Sunny, who walks us through all the details without revealing the essential, because she doesn’t know it, and asks for our thoughts. And that’s the trick, that’s what makes you keep watching. Having a penchant for courtroom dramas and thrillers, I took great joy in watching the trial preparation led by Alan J. Dershowitz (Ron Silver), the Harvard professor who conducted Claus von Bulow’s appeal and wrote the book that inspired the film. Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close play Claus and Sunny von Bulow, and you may be tempted to ask yourself: how hard is it two play two rich people with too much time on their hands, who mostly lie around the house? Well, you just have to watch the film and see just how demanding their roles were – who else but Jeremy Irons could allude to all the things he alludes to under that impenetrable façade, and how different is Glenn Close’s Sunny at those different parts in her life portrayed in the film?). It’s actually the kind of performance that deserves to be acclaimed more than the physically transformative roles that always get the most attention. Reversal of Fortune is mischievous, funny, tantalising, deceitful and cynical. It makes you aware that under the appearances (and it plays even better with its rich characters) there might lie a whole different truth.

 

 

Reading
 
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

I don’t think I have ever read an autobiography that is so sensitive and rough at the same time. This has nothing to do with the movie business and the films we saw Paul Newman in and loved. It is a sharp and accurate look into one’s own life, and the result is not absolute understanding or revelation, but the effort of setting things straight, and dismantling many myths in the process, and ultimately the realisation that one remains an observer. This flawed image of a human being, of a Hollywood star is so much more moving and deeply relatable. “I’ve always had a sense of being an observer of my own life. I have a sense of watching something, but not of living something. It’s like looking at a photograph that’s out of focus, because the camera was shaken and the head is blurry. In fact, you can almost see three or four separate distinct images, depending on how it’s been vibrating. It’s spacey, I guess I always feel spaced out.” He doesn’t dramatise himself, doesn’t give him self-importance, and he plainly confesses that he had the luck to find the drive to overcome the label people always put on him that unquestionably involved his looks. “I think Paul was waiting for someone to make a demand on his talent,” said Sidney Lumet, who directed him in The Verdict. “He knows what good acting is, and good acting is about self-revelation.” I think this book is as close as it could be to a self-revelation of the man.

One of the most authoritative voices in tennis, Mats Wilander, talks to Sebastián Valera just a few days before the Australian Open. They talk the Grand Slam titles favourites this year, all-time greats, biggest challengers in the game, and the lack of consistency in women’s tennis. “What are we asking these players to be? Do they have to be in social media? Do they have to be a model? Do they have to win the US Open? Do they have to defend the points? Wowowow, let her be, slow down. I hope she keeps playing tennis.”

 
Listening

The Pedro Almodóvar interview for the podcast At Your Service. His films are so special and unique and I believe he gives the answer to that in this episode. He also talks the present film he’s working on, his beginnings as a filmmaker, the Spanish he grew up in, the strong women in his life, his frequent collaborators, Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, his favourite contemporary filmmakers and all-time cinema masterpieces (I just love how he refers to Godard’s first film, À bout de souffle, by its original French title and has no idea what the English title is) and he makes a plea for watching movies in a cinema.
 

The album: Disintegration, The Cure

 
Making
 

A photography book is more likely to fall into the category of making rather than of writing a book (just the way a photographer says he makes, not takes a photo), or so I believe. Especially when the photographer is Joni Sternbach. How often does it happen to you these days to go back over and over again to a photograph you’ve seen and wonder: How was it made? Very rarely indeed. And how often does it inspire you to describe it as made by hand? Almost never. But this is why Joni Sternbach’s photographic series titled Surfland is so singular – evoking a feeling of both wonder and tranquility, an acute sense of time and place, a perfect imperfection that only handmaking and artistic intuition can achive, standing apart in this age of ubiquitous photography, and relating so well to the world of surfers and their spirit, their passion, their patience, their calm, and the certain state of mind it takes to ride above.

Using large format cameras and hand-poured plate collodion process, Joni Sternbach creates unique and strikingly beautiful portraits of unrivaled texture and depth along coastlines across the globe. She has been working on her ongoing series Surfland since 2006, documenting the surfing culture across the world, capturing and celebrating the diverse range and the way of life of people that are devotees of the sea. This is photography made by hand. It has soul. It’s one of a kind. There is something so extraordinary and mystifying about Joni Sternbach’s photography and I had the pleasure of interviewing her some years ago.

Her most recent book however, Kissing a Stranger, gathers her early work, from the 1970s and 1980s, and “in essence it is a portrait of the artist as a young woman forming her visual language through freedom of experimentation and expression”. These photos are not only a product of the woman and artist she was back then, but also a portrait of the times.
 

Exploring

TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO², a pop-up newsletter by Craig Mod, about seven days of winter walking the city of Tokyo, a city he has now been walking for some twenty-three years. The newsletter starts on January 16 and ends on January 23. I have subscribed to all of Craig Mod’s previous pop-up newsletters and they simply are a different kind of experience, so remote from everything mainstream. Plus, he’s a wonderful writer.
 

 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. The Adventure Podcast: Terra Incognita. Sirene magazine.
 

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | Comments Off on January Newsletter: An Extraordinary Life, An Ordinary Man, and Finding Alain Delon