How would all you film fanatics like to see this movie? Creating his typically unsettling atmosphere, David Lynch directs the beautiful Marion Cotillard in a romantic thriller set in old Shanghai. Or how about: In his last turn behind the camera, Dennis Hopper directs Gwyneth Paltrow in an Antonioni-inspired dash through Rome. Or maybe you'd like a reprise of the Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Audrey Tautou collaboration you loved so much in Amélieand A Very Long Engagement, this time with a Brief Encounter-style love story to keep you on the edge of your seat.
If any of those taglines are to your taste, you're in luck, because they've already been made. But here's the catch: Instead of cinema-release feature-length films, they're between three and 20 minutes long, and they're all promotional pieces for high-end fashion houses. In other words, they are commercials, or at least some new brand of commercial that's becoming increasingly popular. Lynch's Lady Blue Shanghai is the third in a series promoting the patent leather Lady Dior bag; the first, The Lady Noire Affair, was directed by Olivier Dahan of La Vie en Rose fame, the second, Lady Rouge, by Swedish music video director Jonas Akerlund, and all three star Cotillard as Lady Dior. Hopper's Roman romp is called Pashmy Dream, and it has Tod's Pashmy bag at its center, while the Jeunet/Tautou story is for Chanel No. 5.
Fashion films such as these have been appearing here and there for several years, but they've reached a crescendo this summer. On May 15, the 17-minute Lynch film was screened at the World Expo in Shanghai before the line debuted its 2011 cruise collection. Meanwhile, Chanel had just screened a short film before its cruise show in St. Tropez. Remember Now, directed by Karl Lagerfeld, features suave French leading man Pascal Greggory as well as a dancing, mewling multitude of Chanel models who reenact scenes from St. Tropez's past; Brigitte Bardot, the Jaggers, and Coco Chanel all make appearances. This week, Four Play, a two-minute film "inspired by" Donna Karan's Eldridge bag, which stars Christina Ricci and was directed by Jake Sumner (aka Sting's son), will open the Los Angeles Short Film Festival. And to top it all off, September will mark the online premiere of Martin Scorsese's film for men's fragrance Bleu de Chanel, which he shot in Williamsburg last winter.
What are these things? Are they films or commercials? Should we be horrified that a string of first-class directors are lending their talents to pimping bags and perfumes, or does this collaboration exist in some other, more rarified realm where fashion and high art coexist? When Baz Luhrmann's Chanel No. 5 commercial starring Nicole Kidman came out in 2005, Chanel's PR department snootily proclaimed that it had to be a film because "Baz Luhrmann doesn't do adverts." It seemed like a dubious assertion, considering the similarities between this two-minute bit of celluloid prominently featuring a product, and what we earthlings call commercials. But it did signal a new kind of ambition that later collaborations have more closely lived up to.
Chanel likes to call them "advertising films," while others just go for the art-centric "short film" or the oddly Austin Powers-derived "mini-movie." The fashion world has always danced with Hollywood's artier side; Lynch himself directed four literary-themed commercials for Calvin Klein's Obsession back in 1988. (The first of these featured a younger and dewier Benicio del Toro alongside Heather Graham, who always looks exactly the same.) While those commercials had a certain edgy sexiness that charted new TV territory, there was no doubt that they were indeed commercials, and that Lynch was acting as hired gun. Since then, houses have been carefully shifting the emphasis from advertising to filmmaking, making the films longer, giving their big-name directors carte blanche or close to it, taking the central focus off the product, and packaging them as "art" on their Web sites and in film venues. In other words, they've relinquished branding control of the films, which must make them a lot more fun for the directors.
In 2005, Prada debuted the Ridley and Jordan Scott-directed "Thunder Perfect Mind," at the Berlin Film Festival. The film intercuts shots of model Daria Werbowy navigating Berlin with scenes of her discovering her wild side through swing dancing, all to a free jazz soundtrack and voiceover recitation of a Gnostic text celebrating the divine feminine. The film was cut up into shorter segments for television airing. This was a first, both because Prada had never done a television campaign before, and because, at six minutes, the film really was longer than a TV commercial. But in spite of its length and the fact that the perfume doesn't make an appearance until the final frame, it still feels like a commercial. It's just so fashiony in that pretentious, model-obsessed way, and the flimsy narrative in which a supposedly plain girl is transformed into a glamorous creature of the night isn't treading any new territory.
The good fashion films have a sense of humor about what's really going on here. Lynch shows his sly humor with the ta-dah!-style revelation of the bag in a burst of light and smoke. Once she's discovered the Lady Dior in her hotel room, Cotillard suddenly recalls what might be a past life. As she drifts into this other world, she and her lover, played by the actor Gong Tao, blur and double amidst the lights of the old city. There are disorientingly cavernous lobbies and long hallways, extended pauses between oddly empty lines of dialogue, ominous fish-eyed close-ups on Cotillard's lovely, frightened face, eerie music … in other words, it's a David Lynch film. The final shot once again puts the Lady Dior bag front and center with a blue rose given to Cotillard in her dream-memory reappearing inside of it. One blogger noted that "it almost seems as if Lynch envisioned the film with just a flower, but then threw the bag in there when Dior came a-calling." That may well be the case, and the over-the-top symbolic weight placed squarely on the bag might be Lynch's way of winking at his audience.
Hopper's quick little fairytale, in which fire-breathers, mimes, and clowns lurk behind every corner, also teases the connection to the brand. "Gwyneth, your bag! Your bag, Gwyneth!" shouts the journalist played by Daniele Savoca, his earnest cry repeated to the point of absurdity. The director gave a wry summing up of the film/brand relationship: "Cinderella has her shoe. Gwyneth has her Tod's Pashmy bag." Hopper paid lip-service to the bag, but it was ultimately more peripheral to the film than the heart of it.
This may well signal a disturbing cynicism on the part of the directors. You can imagine them muttering "I'll throw whatever bag they want in there," as they sign off on the budgets the houses are offering them to make their vanity projects. And audiences might not mind or even notice, since, over the years, movies have buckled in other ways to commercial demands. A slogan for a bag in a Hopper flick is not so far away from Absolut Vodka product placement in a Sex and the City movie. We've gotten used to advertisers intruding on our storylines.