Grace Jones: Bloodlight + Bami


Nobody owns the stage like Grace Jones.

(2017) Music Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly Dunbar. Directed by Sophie Fiennes

At 70, Grace Jones remains what she always has been – a fashion innovator, an icon in the LGBTQ community, a fierce personality and an unparalleled performer. Although she did a 1985 documentary on herself, that was much more of a concert film.

Jones throughout her career has been deliberately enigmatic, meticulously maintaining her image which is intimidating and alluring at once, the very pinnacle of androgyny combining performance artist and disco diva. In her heyday she was one of the most successful artists specializing in club music and yet few but her most devoted fans (and most of her fans are, to be fair, devoted) knew much about her background.

You won’t learn much here either. Fiennes follows the legend as she records her most recent reggae-tinged album in her home country of Jamaica where she was born – her family are prominently featured. At home, she affects a Jamaican patois which is largely missing from her speech now although it must be said that she adopts the accent of wherever she is – an upper class British lilt when in London, a slightly French twang in Paris and upstate New York (she grew up from age 13 near Syracuse) when in the States.

All that aside, Jones has had the kind of career that has been influential far beyond her own immediate circle and further beyond the confines of any catwalk, concert hall or movie. She deserves a definitive documentary but let’s face it; we may never get to see one and this one certainly isn’t it. I will grant it’s far more revealing about her background than any other documentary I’ve seen on the lady but she is a difficult nut to crack. She doesn’t tolerate shit at all nor does she have to. She has never been particularly open about her background; while she sometimes complains here about the grind that comes with being a pop diva (she endures a particularly insulting music video because as she reminds us, the fees she gets for it will pay for the entire album she’s recording. While she is clearly adored by her fans (most but not all of whom are gay) and she is more or less accessible to them, she also keeps her distance as well.

It doesn’t help that Fiennes has delivered a fairly disjointed documentary that jumps from place to place, inserts concert footage (which is the best part of the film by the way) and almost never gives any particular insight as to who Grace Jones is. She also fails to identify nearly anyone who appears onscreen, whether backing musicians, dancers, family or friends – hence the somewhat abbreviated cast list.

Yes, I get that she is the very definition of fierce and is not above confrontations when she thinks they are needed; I get that she is spiritually connected to her family and her homeland; I get that she enjoys the larger-than-life limelight and the persona that she’s carefully crafted over the years. But what lies behind the excessive masks and hats, the glitter and the make-up, the long model legs (that are still as long and as beautiful as ever)? We don’t get even a glimpse and that’s what I really wanted to see.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The direction is somewhat haphazard. One gets the sense that the director wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace Jones: State of Grace
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cold War

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Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky


Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky does not find his muse amusing.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Elena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger, Grigori Manoukov, Radivoje Bukvic, Nicolas Vaude, Anatole Taubman, Eric Desmarestz, Clara Guelblum, Maxime Danielou, Sophie Hasson, Nikita Ponomarenko. Directed by Jan Kounen

 

Sometimes it’s difficult to see historical figures as flesh and blood human beings. We see them as perpetually engrossed in whatever it was that made them famous, be it war, music, fashion, politics, religion or art. Nonetheless, these giants and icons had time to live, love, eat and have relationships, both friendship and the next level up.

Igor Stravinsky (Mikkelsen) went to the 1913 premiere of his latest work, The Rite of Spring brimming with hope. It was to be the piece that established him as not only a great composer, but one who altered music itself. With a ballet choreographed by the great Nijinsky and a debut set in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. To his horror, the audience reacted not only with boos but with such passionate hate that a riot broke out. Despite the solace offered by his wife Katarina (Morozova), Stravinsky sank into a depression, but the performance was witnessed by young Coco Chanel (Mouglalis), then establishing herself as a leading star in the world of fashion.

Seven years later, Chanel ran into Stravinsky at a party. The great composer had recently fled his native Russia after the revolution and between that and The Great War was virtually penniless, and his wife now suffered from tuberculosis. Still a great admirer of his talent, she invited the composer to her villa Bel Respiro in Garches along with his family so that he could work undisturbed by interruption or need.

Like moths to flames the two great creative minds are drawn to each other, first as mutual admirers and then physically. For the next 18 months they have a torrid affair which they did little to hide from Katarina, who endured the humiliation with the wisdom of a woman who recognizes that her husband’s foolishness was merely temporary. Still, during this time Stravinsky would write some brilliant compositions and Coco along with her collaborator Ernest Breaux would create her iconic scent Chanel No. 5, still the most famous perfume in the world.

The movie is taken from Chris Greenhalgh’s speculative novel of the same name (Greenhalgh also co-wrote the screenplay). The actual affair itself was never made public although confidantes and biographers of both Chanel and Stravinsky have since confirmed that it occurred. Much of what is depicted here between the two of them is extrapolation; how much a muse they were to one another is extremely subject to speculation.

Both Stravinsky and Chanel are both depicted as being not terribly likable. Chanel is a driven, demanding woman who was uncompromising in her vision and in the sense that she knew her place as arguably the most important creator of style in the 20th century; nearly single-handedly she changed the idea of what was feminine and her Little Black Dress remains a mainstay for any woman’s wardrobe to this day.

Stravinsky comes off as aloof, arrogant and self-promoting. He, like Chanel, was perfectly aware of the musical revolution he was creating and was, like Chanel, driven to be the one to lead that revolution. Both of them seemed outwardly perfect for one another, although with egos that almost guaranteed that once the passion ran its course there was no way they could continue any sort of relationship.

Mikkelsen certainly resembles Stravinsky facially with his angular bone structure and heavy-lidded eyes. The composer is rarely given opportunity to show any emotion except to his wife and mistress. He had children but is rarely shown displaying any fatherly emotions. It’s not what I’d call a gripping performance, although Mikkelsen is certainly a capable actor; I’d describe it more as restrained.

Mouglalis is certainly beautiful as Chanel herself was; I’m not sure she truly captures the force of personality that Chanel possessed but she certainly tries; in defense of Mouglalis I’m not sure anyone could as Coco Chanel was by all accounts an extraordinary woman who simply dominated every room she ever entered. She was as much a force of nature as a human being and Mouglalis gives some indication of that aspect of her. When it comes to displaying her more human side, well, it doesn’t quite necessarily work.

The character who engenders the most sympathy is Katarina and Morozova nearly steals the show. While she is being cuckolded, she is certainly no fool and is perfectly aware of what’s happening around her. She alone understands Stravinsky’s music and his needs for acceptance and adoration; even though mostly bedridden due to her affliction, she spends an enormous amount of time transcribing the composer’s work. She is strong, never self-pitying and is enormously protective not only of her children, but also of her husband in subtle ways. It’s a wonderful performance and Morozova may well be an actress to watch out for.

The filmmakers do a fantastic job of not only recreating the disastrous premiere of The Rite of Spring (based on meticulous research) but also of creating Bel Respiro, which no longer exists and for which few images remain. The set design is sumptuous and certainly indicative of its time, the beginnings of Art Deco. Many of Chanel’s designs are used in the women’s costumes and this is as good-looking a production as you’re likely to see.

What I would have liked to have seen more of however is the hearts of the two icons. This is almost an intellectual exercise as we are shown how the two influenced one another. We see precious little of the souls of the artists other than what can be gleaned from their works, which might be the truest insights to their souls in any case. For a tale of a passionate affair, there is surprisingly little passion (although the sex scenes are somewhat heated, they are oddly un-sexy). I suppose that this isn’t really a love story, but still – I needed to have my feelings stimulated as well as my intellect and that just didn’t happen here. Be that as it may, this is still a worthwhile film to watch although those who think PBS is too highbrow may not agree.

WHY RENT THIS: A meticulous recreation of the infamous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. Sumptuous set design.  Fine performances by leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly cool and emotionless. Appeals more to the head than the heart. Neither Chanel nor Stravinsky are easy to like.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality, including some fairly graphic sex and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Mouglalis appeared in several Chanel ads before being cast as Coco. Chanel (and their then-chief designer Karl Lagerfeld) gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to their archives and Chanel’s apartment in Paris.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget; sounds like a likely box office profit was made.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: First Position

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job