LOVE CHECKMATES CURSE IN FIVE SEAMLESS MOV(I)ES
BY MAGDA PESCARIU
I am a total sucker for a well-told story. Through the worst times in my life, I still have found solace and respite in a perfectly drawn narrative arc on the silver screen, in the pages of a breathtaking book, in the quips of a clever comedian, or in the silent show of one’s wardrobe of a lifetime. Imagine the feast I had this year with the stories competing for the 90th Academy Awards, the best of them incredible stories about extraordinary relationships, chronicled in the most creative and entertaining ways possible. A case in point of art preceding life that came as no surprise, these stories dissect and reflect several facets of the same intense and challenging, sometimes brutal, always concessive reality of the relationships between men and women that is on everybody’s mind these days, even though the movies had been completed before the outbreak of the 21st-century-style gender power struggle last fall.
Narrowing it down to the films nominated for Best Costume Design in which my interest lies, it was worthy of note that while they are period movies (the most “modern” one being set in 1962), their stories abound with progressive central themes, empowering messages and forward-looking characters to carry them across. They talk about the messy beauty and the uncomfortable truths of any man-woman relationship in distant or more recent history, via narratives that couldn’t be more diverse in characters, setting, plot and conflict, yet whose resolutions converge towards the same conclusion we have all reached by now. Namely, that relationships are hard to negotiate and inconceivable in the absence of compromise; that the gender relations pattern is never a zero-sum game, but a thrilling, mitigating process of trial and error, of give and take, of love and curse.
Now, the importance of clothes in narrating a story onscreen is widely recognized, and so it is their transformative power in our everyday life. There is a meaning in each garment we pick in the morning to help us face the world prepared and articulate, as it is in every costume designed for each character in a film, be it center stage big shot or background minor player. Clothing can be a mask, a diversion, a negotiation, a projection, a shield, or a statement, while it is a universal storytelling language in and of itself, valid for male and female characters alike, but with a deeper meaning and staying power for the latter – always have, always will. So there is no coincidence that all movies nominated for brilliant costume crafting this year feature leading ladies in a class of their own, who gain and keep the upper-hand because they navigate their relationships with men regardless of the social biases, expectations and assumptions.
In Beauty and the Beast, costumes (designed by Jacqueline Durran) tell the story of a modern, updated Belle (known feminist actress Emma Watson), outspoken and well-educated, who wears her skirts hiked up into waist with bloomers underneath (that’s about as close as a girl in the 18th century would ever be to wearing trousers) and romances the Beast with no trace of Stockholm syndrome and no unhealthy vibe of helplessness or entrapment. Belle is delicate and pretty for sure, with a nod to the 1991 animation, one of the most beloved Disney classics worldwide, but she is a strong princess, emancipated and active, who wants to invent things, do things, and fall in love with uninhibited passion. All her iconic costumes reflect this abandoned physicality and contemporary approach of romance and relationships – the corset-free yellow ball gown, the blue skirt with outside pockets and denim-like bodice, the fluid white dancing dress – while she continues to recognize and love her bejeweled handsome prince in every bit of the fury, big-headed, aristocratic Beast.
A different kind of aristocratic beast is very much loved by another breed of formidable lady in the historical fiction Darkest Hour. First thing to consider, of course, is the effort Jacqueline Durran (nominated twice for costume design this year) spent on dressing Gary Oldman for the part, particularly with the challenges posed by the body suit and facial prosthetics used to transform Oldman into Churchill. Not having to create through costumes a narrative arc for Churchill, as the time period of the film is too short, she focused on nailing down Churchill’s famous Edwardian dandy style, his attention to each detail of his clothing, as well as his substance as a person and extraordinary confidence in public. But where Jacqueline Durran really had to turn her wheels of imagination was in creating Clemmentine’s outfits, since Churchill’s legendary wife was known as an extravagant dresser with a penchant for wearing eccentric fur coats, posh suits with remarkable embellishments and quirky milliner headwear. Clemmie’s incredible fashion style (fine-tuned on actress Kristin Scott Thomas) is, in this movie as it was in real life, a statement not only of her might in keeping things together through thick and thin as the great woman behind ‘the greatest Briton who ever lived’, but also of her self-possessed presence, a fighter with a husband full of doubts and insecurities in private, whose only weapons were a deeply-loving wit and a pur sang British sense of humor.
From the dark, curtailed and controlled Victorian era, another story is depicted on screen at the hand of costume designer Consolata Boyle, who creates from scratch the canvas for the unexpected friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in her late years and her young, handsome attendant-cum-confidante from British-ruled India, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), in Victoria and Abdul. In times of heavy pomp, burdensome tradition and complex responsibility, this is the tale of a most unusual, controversial and scandalous relationship, so much so that the Queen’s heirs decided to remove any trace of its existence after her death. Yet it’s also the surviving tale of a decade-long friendship so strong that it changed the monarch’s somber life for better, enlivening with exotic Indian flair and sheer human comfort a mournfully stifled (but politically correct) existence.
Even though it took creators of the mysterious Amazonian fish-man from The Shape of Water three years to turn a sketch from Guillermo del Toro’s notebook into ‘the Michelangelo’s David of the amphibian men’, it is the aquatic-looking wardrobe of mute custodian Elisa (Sally Hawkins), her Peter Pan collar blouses, her practical-meet-coquettish headbands, and most importantly her stunning vintage shoes – that will stay with us from the movie. Costume designer Luis Sequeira reached a magical balance between Cold War America’s fashion of 1962 and the legendary whimsical world of del Toro’s fantasy in bringing to life this perfect fable of improbable, misconstrued and underestimated love between two incompatible and incomplete, yet genuinely human, characters. How love conquers all through the poetry of understanding otherness (which raises both the question of why and the funnier one of how) is intimated by the increasing transformation of styles and hues, from ’50s thrift-shops style in muted water shades and sepia, to the intense red of blood, interdiction and determination, which comes to stand out in the end as the vital dye of love.
And then we have the dressmaker’s story of errant love, which appropriately won the Best Costume Design Academy Award for Mark Bridges, crowning his work on the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed Phantom Thread. Regarded as a dark romantic comedy, an obsessive Gothic drama, or an outlandish mystery movie, Phantom Thread is a courageous exploration of gender relationship dynamics and one of the most compelling films ever for costume design. Mark Bridges had to create from square one the aesthetic and rules of a fictional London haute-couture maison and over fifty original garments, including those for the house’s onscreen fashion show, but this is just a one-dimensional angle to view. The ways each garment in the movie is imagined, designed, fitted, draped, embroidered, sewn and worn speak volumes about the specific tastes, eccentricities, individuality and emotional (im)maturity of the leading characters, none of which proves to be what we expect them to be in the beginning. Couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his muse and object of affection Alma (Vicky Krieps), and his partner-in-work sister (Leslie Manville) are caught in what seems to be a privileged yet suffocating triangle of love, neediness and control, majestically populated by show-stopping dresses created for the London elite. But the Oscar went to Mark Bridges for the artistry of capturing in the fold of a dress and a lining of a jacket the reality behind love, i.e., the ongoing battle of the sexes required to master in order to be able to share your life with someone you love.
With such richness of options in mind, I was waiting for the Academy Awards with excited anticipation. The 90th Oscars should have been a celebration of vision, creativity, storytelling, spontaneity and inspiration. Yet as award after award was presented to the lucky winners, the whole show breathed an air of aseptic no-touch technique and social withdrawal. Men were visibly reluctant, intimidated by the prospect of making a faux pas, ill-at-ease and gawky. Except for the winners of the below-the-line categories, way too happy to be there to remember the new rules of political correctness, they accepted their awards with awkward pride, avoiding to kiss the female presenters on the cheeks or any emotional sign towards the women on stage altogether. It crossed my mind that Adrien Brody’s wonderfully spontaneous gesture when he swept Halle Berry off her feet and kissed her on the lips after she announced he won an Oscar for Best Actor in 2003 (at age 29, making him the youngest actor to win in that category) was simply inconceivable today. A visible proof of how our best intentions can easily slip, how the most genuine social movements can get into unforeseen dérapage, and how any pendulum swings first from extreme to extreme before reaching its balance position, it filled my heart with sadness.
For if we’ve learned anything at all about people’s most intimate wishes and fears from the well-told stories of last year, we mostly wish never to be cursed, always to be loved. It shouldn’t be so hard for us to have it – nuanced for sure, but attainable nevertheless. I do want to be treated as an equal, but I also want to inhabit a world where a man interested in me wouldn’t hesitate to hold my hand and whisper to my ear, fearless of consequence: ’Some day, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look tonight’. I’ll always take that as a compliment.