Dior and his doubles

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Tuesday April 21, 2015
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Raf Simons in a scene from writer-director Frederic Tcheng's <i>Dior and I. </i>Photo:<br>Courtesy the Orchard
Raf Simons in a scene from writer-director Frederic Tcheng's Dior and I. Photo:
Courtesy the Orchard

I had the pleasure of watching writer-director Frederic Tcheng's third foray into fashion documentary, Dior and I, in the wide-ass puffy loungers of Embarcadero Cinemas' Screening Room 4. They have scary buttons that relax you into a position suitable for a root canal, from whence only the lower half of the screen can be seen. I opted out, not wanting to miss a frame of this poetic, dramatic, frenetic, ultimately elegiac hommage to the creative process. I highly recommend any aesthete see this intimate portrait of haute couture's inner workings as newly anointed Dior pope Raf Simons' first collection is whipped up over a pulse-quickening eight weeks, in 2012. Opens Friday, April 24, at Opera Plaza.

Perhaps you've heard of John Galliano, the swashbuckling Gilbraltarian who was House of Dior's savior-in-residence from 1999 until four years ago, when a drug-addled, Hitler-hugging meltdown in a Marais cafe made him persona non grata. His traces have been erased. The fallen angel's professional prowess and personal tragedy have no place in a campaign to restore confidence in one of the last great fashion houses in Paris, which is to say, the world. The only onscreen ghost is its founder, the doughy-faced, beady-eyed Christian Dior (1905-57), whose revolutionary post-war New Look in 1947 remains a tough act to follow. Dior himself realized he'd created a "Siamese twin," a brand, an expectation that preceded and eclipsed his mere person, which is why he called his 1951 memoir Dior et moi (Dior and me).

We don't learn much about his Belgian successor, but we notice Raf Simons is skinny, high-strung, wears black, has short spiky hair, bad skin, shifty eyes, indeed the haunted look of something out of the French Revolution. He speaks French with an unsettlingly guttural Flemish accent, evidence of which is edited out. Does a reptilian control freak who can neither sketch nor sew, whose background is architecture and Jil Sander minimalism, seem ill-suited to the voluminous voluptuousness that's at least half the Dior magic? Not to worry. He's only the guy in charge. His every impulse and notion will be passed through the severe sieve of house tradition and technique.

Raf knows what he wants even before he's sure what that is, and coldly goes head to head with the artisans, 95% of them women, virtuoso petites mains (little hands) who will make clothes out of his initially vague, abstract, yet technically demanding concepts. The heart of the film is l'atelier, the workroom, where it all gets very real, where the stitches meet the pins, and fabric either falls as intended or mutely resists. The technical conflict between Raf and the seamstresses is doubled by the time conflict between satisfying him and servicing the high-rolling clients who demand transatlantic house calls. Raf is meanwhile doubled by the dead Dior, who haunts his headquarters at 30 Avenue Montaigne, overseeing the placement of every bead.

Tcheng delicately weaves in archival footage of Dior and his dresses, with the master himself in hypnotic voiceover. I was pleasantly reminded of Jacques Becker's 1944 masterpiece of psychological insight into the madness that makes men make women's dresses, Falbalas, which you can rent at Le Video. Jean-Paul Gautier put a loop from Falbalas in his recent career retrospective, crediting the film with showing him his career path, even as it educated him on the inner workings of l'atelier. In a chilling echo of Falbalas, Raf jokes that he "can jump out a window" in order to ensure his collection makes the cover of Paris Match.

Tcheng isn't interested in psychoanalysis, but he does get in there with his camera and capture close encounters between newbie chief and veteran artisans: moments of dispute, anxiety, and willfulness create dramatic tension atop underlying strata of joie de vivre, camaraderie, and self-surpassing, superhuman feats of haute couture. Dior and I is a group portrait, maybe even a national portrait, through time, of the French genius for materializing beauty fit for the human form, that far surpasses anything you could imagine from seeing ordinary mortals slobbing around in T-shirts and jeans. Tcheng's one blunder is to crank up the music during the final 15 minutes, which undermines the purely visual pleasure of the clothes, the models, the front row, the heat of the moment. And I do have one request: that he next turn his lens on the Parisian patissiers (pastry makers), certainly the equal of the couturiers, whose edible works of art are priced within reach of us slobs.


Opens April 24, Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas in SF, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and Camera 7 in San Jose.