Making a discovery

Michela Occhipinti on Cristiano Travaglioli, body image, Flesh Out and Ring Of Fire

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Michela Occhipinti on June Carter and Ring Of Fire in Flesh Out (Il Corpo Della Sposa): "She fell in love with Johnny Cash and she dedicated this song to him."
Michela Occhipinti on June Carter and Ring Of Fire in Flesh Out (Il Corpo Della Sposa): "She fell in love with Johnny Cash and she dedicated this song to him." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second half of my conversation with Flesh Out (Il Corpo Della Sposa) director Michela Occhipinti at the Park South Hotel in New York, we discussed her work with Paolo Sorrentino's longtime editor Cristiano Travaglioli (Loro, The Young Pope Jude Law mini-series, Youth, The Great Beauty, Il Divo), Johnny Cash and June Carter's Ring of Fire, and Christophe Lambert in Marco Ferreri's I Love You.

Michela Occhipinti on Verida's (Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche) heart-shaped lamp in Flesh Out: "It's an homage to Marco Ferreri, the great director [of I Love You]."
Michela Occhipinti on Verida's (Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche) heart-shaped lamp in Flesh Out: "It's an homage to Marco Ferreri, the great director [of I Love You]."

Flesh Out, co-written with Simona Coppini, shot by Daria D'Antonio, and produced by Gregorio Paonessa and Marta Donzelli (Susanna Nicchiarelli's Nico, 1988, Laura Bispuri's Sworn Virgin, Daughter Of Mine) stars Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche as a Mauritanian girl who is going through the customary three-month preparation for her arranged marriage, that includes the traditional fattening up of the bride. Historically and internationally, a woman's well-being and feeling at home in her own skin has had so pitifully little impact in a male world that to this day sways drunkenly between ideals achieved by corsets and plastic surgery, diet pills and implants.

Michela Occhipinti's debut feature Flesh Out, a highlight of this year's Tribeca Film Festival, holds up a cracked mirror that vividly illuminates the paradoxes of ownership of the female body and the wildly varying pressures put on women to conform to the chance standard of beauty that your place and time of birth impose.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your editor is Sorrentino's editor, right?

Michela Occhipinti: Exactly. I tell you, with Cristiano, I had the luck. We were only an 8-people crew in Mauritania. I did with my assistant all the costumes, the veils, the decorations of the sets. I worked with amazing people. Daria D'Antonio, the DP, she's been my rock, really. If she wasn't there, I would not have survived. And Cristiano Travaglioli is amazing. He has ideas like - you know the lamp?

Michela Occhipinti on working with Paolo Sorrentino's editor Cristiano Travaglioli: "Cristiano had the genius idea to put a little music and let the lamp say 'I love you'."
Michela Occhipinti on working with Paolo Sorrentino's editor Cristiano Travaglioli: "Cristiano had the genius idea to put a little music and let the lamp say 'I love you'." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The I-love-you lamp? [I was thinking of the evening dress by Victor & Rolf and a heart-shaped coat by Hedi Slimane for Yves Saint Laurent in the Costume Institute's Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art].

MO: It's an homage to Marco Ferreri, the great director [of I Love You]. That heart-shaped lamp, it said a sentence in English but spoken by a Chinese person. Something like "The Bluetooth device is out of order."

Cristiano had the genius idea to put a little music and let the lamp say "I love you". Because it becomes a character like the film Marco Ferreri did many years ago with Christophe Lambert where he was passionate about this little key holder. It was the face of a woman and every time he touched it it would light up and say "I love you." The voice [of the lamp in Flesh Out] is mine saying "I love you." He's also amazing with music [by Alex Braga].

AKT: The idea to use the song Ring Of Fire, the famous Johnny Cash song. I got a totally new understanding of Ring Of Fire.

MO: I'll tell you the story. You're the first person. I'm going to be honest what happened here. Sidi [Mohamed Chinghaly] in 2016 was singing it with me, there in the car. You might think in the film, how come that a guy who comes there with a scale [to weigh the bride Verida] knows English or would listen to Ring Of Fire? I didn't want to explain, maybe he is a student, I wasn't interested in giving him a backstory.

And when we were in the sound mix, in the end we had Johnny Cash from the beginning. There was a problem with the permission, two days before we were finishing the sound mix, they said, "No, we're not going to give you Johnny Cash." I was desperate, listening to all the covers ever made. And then I found June Carter's version. And I discovered - a lot of things in my life happen like this. Things that seem very negative …

Tribeca Film Festival Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer
Tribeca Film Festival Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: … turn into something positive? A blessing in disguise?

MO: Turn into something much better than I had before. June Carter wrote the song. Why? She wrote the song when she was married to another man. She fell in love with Johnny Cash and she dedicated this song to him. She wrote it for him. Then she sang it and then he sang it. With Sidi singing over it, it's much better with the voice of June Carter.

AKT: It's a woman singing it. And he [Johnny Cash] is cut out, because everybody knows it as his song.

MO: June Carter's version has this sweetness to it that I felt was very touching.

AKT: At the same time, she is in a ring of fire. And we are as women somehow all trapped in this archaic ring of fire. And the heart on the poster, looking at it now, looks like a ring of fire too.

MO: But you're a fantastic viewer and journalist. It's rare. I find very few people who see even more things than you yourself thought, which is amazing. Thank you very much.

Marco Ferreri's I Love You poster
Marco Ferreri's I Love You poster

AKT: You show Verida's little sister growing up in this traditional household, but it is Aladdin she references for the fiancé. She has a Disney princess, Snow White, on one of her dresses.

MO: It was her dress, in fact.

AKT: Two totally opposed ideas of body image. There are images online to be found that show how for many Disney princesses their eyes are wider apart than their waist. There are these girls being bombarded with contradicting ideas of what their body should look like.

I lecture a course at Hunter College on fairy tales and my students' families come from all over the world. One of the major discussions we have is about body image and how much tales play a role. How Disney princesses are an ideal from childhood onwards and have a vast influence into adulthood.

MO: In South Korea, there is this very big fashion, very dangerous, for me really terrifying, of girls - perfect girls, normal girls - who re-do their chins in a V-shape, because that's the fashion now. Nobody is telling them, what about if in five years the fashion is different? You're going to rebuild? What are you? Are you a piece of concrete or are you a human being?

And then they change their eyes. It has a lot to do with the aesthetic of manga. They make very big eyes and the face becomes really small if you break this part [she points to her jaw]. It has to do with the same subject. It's the same thing.

AKT: It also keeps women busy. If you are busy with how you look, you don't go out and change the status quo.

Victor & Rolf I love you evening dress (Autumn/Winter 2005-6) and Hedi Slimane for Yves Saint Laurent coat (Autumn/Winter 2016-17) in Camp: Notes on Fashion at  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Victor & Rolf I love you evening dress (Autumn/Winter 2005-6) and Hedi Slimane for Yves Saint Laurent coat (Autumn/Winter 2016-17) in Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MO: As a woman you are sort of not allowed to get old. You're sort of more rejected, you become more transparent. When I see older women that embrace their age, I think they're beautiful. It's when you're not embracing your age, you look horrible.

AKT: There's plenty of cut up faces you encounter here in this city, that look grotesque. All of this self-torture about looks also isolates women. Your film, I think, makes it easier for people to talk about the issue because you use gavage, something that is new to most people.

MO: I am very happy about what you're saying. I didn't want to tell a story of an anorexic girl or a bulimic girl, because I've seen it. Or a girl who undergoes extreme surgery, because I've seen it. I want to tell things with an antithesis. Because I think, if I tell you the opposite, you have to make much more of an effort to understand. This effort you're making makes you remember it in a more profound way.

Read what Michela Occhipinti had to say on body shaping in Flesh Out (Il corpo della sposa) and her reaction when she discovered that I made her feature a Tribeca Film Festival highlight.

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