Female Director Showcase – Miu Miu Women’s Tales

For the past ten years (2011-present), the Italian high fashion brand Miu Miu have provided an outlet for female directors to showcase their work in their Women’s Tales series. Each year they commission two short features, one to accompany their summer collection (premiering during New York Fashion Week) and one for the winter collection (premiering at the Venice International Film Festival). Apart from a requirement that the films should feature clothing from the Miu Miu range, the directors are given free reign to follow their creative muse where they will, which is apparent in the diverse range of approaches taken over the years. Of the twenty films released so far, I selected the nine which sounded most interesting to me, writing a paragraph on each and providing links to the full works for easy reference.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #2: Muta (2011)

Dawn on an empty ship. A crawlspace opens and a woman extrudes herself in awkward bursts of stuttering insectile movement, head and feet folded together like an emergent pupa. More women in designer dresses and shoes gradually populate the other areas of the ship. Fluttering eyelash extensions sound like butterfly wings. A slightly hunched woman snatches a piece of paper from the wall and we hear sounds like a caterpillar munching. This 6 minute short from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is filmed like a narration-free nature documentary with a heavy emphasis on Guido Berenblum’s sound design, portraying the models as exotic creatures with decorative carapaces. As evening approaches they retreat into their cocoons or discard their outer garments to flutter away like moths.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #3: The Woman Dress (2012)

Reframes the art of clothing design as ceremonial magic. A trio of witches (indie pop trio Au Revoir Simone) prepare a bubbling cauldron-substitute with various concoctions in anticipation of the arrival of The Woman (Maya Sansa), pacing steadily in a hypnotic reverie. The witches help her into a bath and begin the ceremony, circling the bath while chanting in reversed speech. At the ritual’s conclusion, the woman and bathwater have disappeared – in their place is a red lace dress, which they mount reverently on the wall with their other designs. The sound of the piece is once again my favourite element – Sandro Rotti’s sound design maintains a constant presence of liquid bubbling, emerging from the mix periodically to become more prominent before submerging once again, while the members of Au Revoir Simone (memorably featured in Twin Peaks: The Return) provide a suitably eerie score.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #7: Spark and Light (2014)

Elizabeth (Riley Keough) is en route to visit her mother (Maria Ellingsen) in hospital, but her car breaks down near a frozen lake far from civilisation and she can’t get any cell reception. Despairing as night approaches and the cold increases, she spots an oasis of light and heads there in hope of assistance. The occupant (Laufey Elíasdóttir) invites her in to call for a tow truck. Awaking from sleep on the couch, she has a dreamlike encounter with her mother (wearing a dress which matches the wallpaper design) before the sound of the truck’s arrival wakes her again for real in her car, nestled in the blanket given to her by her (imagined?) host. Although the story itself did very little for me, Korean director Kim So-yong’s film excels when she allows Eric Lin’s camerawork to linger on the Icelandic vistas or the gorgeous wallpaper designs.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #8: Somebody (2014)

Writer/director Miranda July delivers a quirky comedy built around a new social networking app – rather than delivering a text message directly, it allows you to select a nearby stranger to deliver your message verbally, complete with stage directions indicating which emotions to convey or physical actions to perform. The recipient of the message can even rate the delivery person on the Somebody app. A series of four conversational vignettes culminates with a bizarrely sexual encounter in which a pot plant demands to be watered and to have its soil probed (“Deeper!”). I’d heard interesting things about her work – definitely curious to see more!

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #9: De Djess (2015)

Another first time encounter with a director whose work I’ve been meaning to explore, in this case Italian writer/director Alice Rohrwacher. An opening placard warns that the film “has been shot with imaginary words” before switching to a nun (Chiara Paoluzzi) directing two fishermen who are bringing in a shoal of dresses, using boat hooks to latch onto their protective garment bags. The nun stretches them out to dry on a quay before bringing them inside for an imminent fashion show. A pack of fashion photographers bursts into the foyer, swivelling cameras like big game hunters. Models appear seemingly at random in front of red backdrops. The pack rushes towards each new target, takes aim, and fires in unison like an execution squad – one model (carried in like a modelling dummy) collapses as if shot. Servant girl Gianetta (Yanet Mojica) – the sole black face in a sea of white – takes the final dress (eager to escape its wrapper) to the room of diva model Divina (Alba Rohrwacher), who throws a hissy fit when she nicks her finger. A single drop of blood lands on the previously pristine dress, which hides in shame underneath the bed. Gianetta reappears and coaxes the dress from its hiding place. As the dress slides gratefully on to her body, it rewards her intentions by converting the blood into an embroidered flower. Gianetta is spotted by the photographers as she attempts to sneak from the building, but all of their phone batteries have died simultaneously and they are unable to capture her image, leaving her to escape with a smile. Rohrwacher’s film sparkles with creativity and provides a satirical critique of the very fashion industry which hired her to create the film in the first place.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #10: Les 3 Boutons (2015)

Influential Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda has taken her own unique approach to the brief which discards glamour, flirts with fairytale logic and pays homage to a poem by Jacques Prévert. A young teenage girl (Jasmine Thiré) is telling the camera how much milk she can get from her goats when a postman (Jacky Patin) arrives with a package from which a fabulous ball gown billows forth. Descending into a stunning cave system in search of the phantasmagorical gown, she espies several sets of miner’s clothes roosting on the ceiling like a colony of bats before locating the dress, which turns into rags at her touch. Pausing to inform the viewers of her choice to embrace education over fashion, she heads into town, losing three buttons along the way, each of which is found by a male at a different stage of life. The teenage cyclist (Corentin Vignet) looks longingly after her; the middle-aged man (Michel Jeannès) files it carefully away in his collection, catalogued by date and description; the young boy (Léon Mézard) plants and waters his button, watching it grow into a flower. The postman returns to inform her that her loss of the three buttons entitles her to three wishes (and three raccoons) – and the film ends! I liked it, but I’m not quite sure what to make of it… I get the sense that Varda has layered in all sorts of references outside of my experience. But it tickles me that Varda is so blatantly biting the hand that feeds her.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #13: Carmen (2017)

Award-winning actress Chloë Sevigny has been stretching her creative muscles, writing and directing three short films in the past few years. Last year’s We Are One Global Film Festival introduced me to her most recent film White Echo (2019). Carmen is her second film, a look at life on the road through the eyes of stand-up comedian Carmen Lynch, the star and co-writer. The first half emphasises her isolation, showing extracts from her routine about the difficulties of modern dating but cutting away to eliminate any hint of audience laughter or applause. Interspersed with her routine we see her adjusting her appearance in the mirror, ignoring clumsy and insulting catcalling while shopping, and sitting by herself in a bar while clusters of younger people enjoy each other’s company. The tone switches halfway through, signalled by a change in the colour of her dress from bluish-purple to vivid red. Her body language is more relaxed, the camera has pulled back to show the audience, the laughter and applause are genuine appreciations of a shared female experience. Men are now no longer a noticeable presence as experiences the joys of solitary explanation in an unfamiliar city against a backdrop of blurred crowds, apart but self-contained and content. Sevigny’s approach to the material is subtle and accomplished, showing a firm grasp of filmic techniques and their application to create a mood or emotion.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #14: (The [End) of History Illusion] (2017)

Writer, director and (crucially) choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall has created a ’60s fantasia which gradually crumbles in the face of the looming Cold War nightmare it attempts to deny. The film opens with a commercial introducing the viewer to its 1960s-dream-home-cum-underground-bunker setting. The front door swings to open to reveal two synchronised tap dancers (Sean & John Scott). A ballerina (Katlyn Addison) prepares meals in the kitchen. A mermaid (Christina Jones) performs solo synchronised swimming routines in the flower-filled pool. The costumes and design are firmly rooted in the 1960s with an appropriately saturated colour palette. The advertisement concludes with a rapidly-spoken voice-over warning of the potential health problems of underground living, an almost subliminal intrusion of reality. Commercial completed, the frame expands and the inhabitants continues as before – freezing briefly as klaxons blare and the lighting turns red, warning of nuclear danger, before reverting to previous behaviour. As the interruptions increase, the performers continue to behave as if nothing were wrong but slip out of synch with their surroundings, until their mutual denial of reality results in the destruction of themselves and their environment, with only the blind gardener (Mina Nishimura) escaping above ground to a the bright light of an uncertain future. A visual feast with exceptional choreography – my favourite being Leal Zielinska’s elaborate performance as a vacuum-cleaning maid who eventually becomes entangled in the cord, obliviously persisting in her attempts to continue her routine.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales #16: The Wedding Singer’s Daughter (2018)

Writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, is known for using her work to examine cultural taboos and critique Saudi societal norms. Here she uses a wedding party in 1980s Riyadh to examine the constraints within which Saudi women lived. The women arrive at the party garbed in traditional abaya and boshiya, although a street level view reveals sparkly high-heeled shoes. Once inside they are free to relax, removing their outer layers to reveal a riot of colours, an array of fancy dresses matching their clothing – although even in this more liberated environment, three young girls whisper among themselves that, as a performer, the wedding singer (Rotana Tarabzouni) is doomed to go to Hell and her daughter (Haylie Niemann) will inevitably follow her. Once the bride and groom are ready to enter, a cry goes out that the men are on their way and the women fall silent, rushing to cover themselves again. The contrast is immediate and speaks for itself. The wedding singer’s daughter illuminates the approaching bride before turning the spotlight directly at the viewer – a direct call for self-examination.

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