Making magic

Inside the opening of CinéSalon Haute Couture on Film at the French Institute Alliance Française.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

CinéSalon Haute Couture on Film opening night - Stanley Donen's Funny Face starring Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson.
CinéSalon Haute Couture on Film opening night - Stanley Donen's Funny Face starring Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson.

Delphine [Selles-Alvarez] has chosen the perfect movie to open the Haute Couture on Film series. Stanley Donen, who previously co-directed On The Town and Singin' In The Rain, both with Gene Kelly, is a specialist in connecting painted picture book backgrounds, still objects, colours, patterns, studio sets or actual city streets and making them come alive more vividly than any realism could accomplish. The power of fashion as moving art is a part of it. You remember what people are wearing in a Donen film.

Embryo Concepts - Marion (Dovima) with Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) as "atmosphere"
Embryo Concepts - Marion (Dovima) with Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) as "atmosphere"

Hubert de Givenchy had been contacted by a Miss Hepburn to make a wardrobe for Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954) and had initially thought the Miss Hepburn in question was Katharine, not Audrey. Givenchy didn't have the time to design the Sabrina dresses for her, but had her pick some from his latest collection. Edith Head won the Best Costume Design Academy Award for Sabrina. Givenchy was uncredited. Hepburn promised him that this would never happen again and the rest is history. Givenchy defined the Hepburn style from then onwards and designed the wardrobes for many of her films, starting with Funny Face.

Then Harper's Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland, found her way, uncredited and unacknowledged by herself, into Funny Face in the shape of Kay Thompson’s character, Maggie Prescott, the uncompromising editor-in-chief of Quality magazine in New York. There is also a bit of Harper’s Bazaar editor, Carmel Snow, in the mix for Prescott.

The multi-talented Thompson is also the author of the Eloise children's books and, like her feisty heroine, used to live at the Plaza Hotel. You can see her performance here linking to two other films in this spring's series at French Institute Alliance Française.

He Loves And She Loves are like the missing pieces of the puzzle of romantic love.
He Loves And She Loves are like the missing pieces of the puzzle of romantic love.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, co-directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Dior And I director, Frédéric Tcheng, and Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt. And the closing film, Deborah Riley Draper's documentary, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution on May 26. Kay Thompson mostly worked behind the scenes at M-G-M as vocal coach and music arranger. She put together the American presentation at Versailles for the battle of couturiers, starting with a re-arranged 'Bonjour Paris' number sung by her godchild, Liza Minnelli.

Diana Vreeland's sense of humor shines through brightly in her memoir DV (1984). This is an excerpt of what she had to say about French beauty:

"There's no such thing as a slack French face. Haven't you ever noticed that? I've given this a lot of thought, and I think it's because the French have to exercise their jaws and the inside of their mouths so much just to get the words out. The vowels demand so much. In fact, the French language has a lot to do with the handsomeness and the beauty of the French face. Talk one line in French and the whole inside of your face moves, whereas the English language leaves you a bit slack. I'll give you an example: Look in the mirror. Now say "Ché-rie!" Did you see what your face just did? Did you see all the exercise you got? Now try "Dear." No exercise there. You're really on a dead horse. Don't you love that phrase?"

Fred Astaire as Dick Avery: "The rain fell so steadily at our prospective location…"
Fred Astaire as Dick Avery: "The rain fell so steadily at our prospective location…"

Four of the original George and Ira Gershwin songs from the 1927 Broadway musical Funny Face that starred Astaire and his sister Adele, found their way into the movie: The title song Funny Face takes place in the darkroom and 'S Wonderful has become the beautiful pastoral duet between Astaire and Hepburn with white doves, Mute Swans, the raft to transport the couple across the pond and the infamous mud (more about the mud in a minute).

He Loves And She Loves, is sung earlier in the same location. Astaire, dressed casually in a baby-blue cardigan with a red kerchief around his neck, and Hepburn's Jo Stockton in the Givenchy wedding dress he is supposed to be shooting for the fashion magazine, are not so much staged by Donen as the couple to root for, but as a suggestion of grace and loveliness - you fill in who you want them to be at that moment. Even the visual composition is an invitation to do so. The white of the chapel, the birds, the dress, his pale sweater, and later coat, are like the missing pieces of the puzzle of romantic love.

Funny Face is a film about transformations - Jo Stockton (Hepburn)
Funny Face is a film about transformations - Jo Stockton (Hepburn)

Funny Face's opening credits, designed with fashion stills by Richard Avedon, immediately introduce us into a world suspended between reality and dream. Avedon also provided the fashion stills in Paris, the famous overexposed closeup of Hepburn, and inspiration for the character of photographer Dick Avery, played with incomparable grace by Astaire. Screenwriter Leonard Gershe had served with Avedon in the Merchant Marines, and based some of the plot on how Avedon met his wife, Doe.

In his autobiography, Steps In Time (1959), Fred Astaire writes about the shoot, nearly half of it in a very rainy Paris, where they spent many days waiting for the weather to clear up:

"Audrey and I had an important romantic dance to perform at La Reine Blanche in Chantilly, a number we had rehearsed for some weeks in Hollywood before leaving for Paris. The rain fell so steadily at our prospective location that it was impossible to shoot the dance until the very end of our stay in France. Finally, when we did manage to get to it, the weather had cleared but the soil had not dried out as we had hoped. Rehearsing was difficult there. We had not touched the number for more than two months and were confronted with the task of recalling and fitting this tender romantic dance to scenic surroundings which covered a very large area on the grass, over a bridge, on a small raft crossing a stream at one point. It was cold one moment, hot the next; cloudy, then sunny, and the ground was never too reliable in its sodden state. Audrey worked relentlessly and danced beautifully, never complained about anything. Finally, just as we were about to start photographing after many hours of rehearsing, she spoke up, 'Here I've been waiting twenty years to dance with Fred Astaire - and what do I get? Mud!'"

Fred Astaire degree zero - Gilles Deleuze's "moment of truth."
Fred Astaire degree zero - Gilles Deleuze's "moment of truth."

Let's Kiss And Make Up, choreographed by Astaire as a bullfight with his raincoat and umbrella, is a masterclass in how to shift the implication of objects through dance. The wit and absurdity are products of Astaire's impeccable timing as the blood red plaid lining in his off-white coat becomes at once the matador's cape and the bull itself.

Funny Face is also a film about transformations. Note that the Greenwich Village bookstore is called "Embryo Concepts". Prescott and Avery are looking for a new way to sell "clothes for the woman not interested in clothes." They hit the streets, model Marion (played with great pizzazz by top fashion model Dovima) and staff in tow. Looking for a location, they stumble upon a bookstore for their photo shoot and conspire to ignore the protests of sales clerk, Jo Stockton. Through fast-talking, fast-action, Avery positions her into the background as "atmosphere" before even Prescott knows what is going on.

Another transformation is that of walk into dance -

In The Time Image (1985), Gilles Deleuze points to a central aspect in classic musical comedy: "This is the moment of truth where the dancer is still going, but already a sleepwalker, who will be taken over by the movement which seems to summon him." Deleuze goes on to talk about the "'degree zero', like a hesitation, a discrepancy, a making late, a series of preparatory blunders…" These moments of truth are sprinkled throughout the picture.

Scenes from Funny Face have inspired a wide range of filmmakers: The ladder as pushed in the bookshop is taken up in Disney's Beauty And The Beast adaptation. Christophe Honoré, who was just here at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema with Métamorphoses, told me about his 2011 film, Beloved, that he had discussed with his costume designer Pascaline Chavanne. Audrey Hepburn's dance in the vault is "aesthetic reference" for Chiara Mastroianni, whose mother, Catherine Deneuve, will be seen dressed in Yves Saint Laurent's creations in Luis Buñuel's Belle De Jour on May 19. Belle De Jour also comes up as a shoe reference for Beloved.

When Maggie Prescott, in the Think Pink opening number, tells the women of America, no, make that the women everywhere, that "red is dead, blue is through, green's obscene and brown's taboo. And there is not the slightest excuse for plum or puce or chartreuse", the tone is set and Stanley Donen begins to show us how magic is made.

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