Fashion Statements at the 72nd Venice Film Festival: New films by Agnès Varda and Alice Rohrwacher

Written by Moira Sullivan

Agnès Varda was a special guest at the 72nd Venice Film Festival for special side event entitled “Women’s Tales” on September 4, 2015, sponsored by the Italian fashion house “Miu Miu,” which is owned by Miuccia Prada. For several years Miu Miu has selected and funded directors to make short films embodying a critical celebration of femininity in the 21st century. Previous “Women’s Tales” contributors have been Ava DuVernay, Miranda July, So Yong Kim, Lucrecia Martel, Hiam Abbass, and Zoe Cassavetes. All films can be watched on Miu Miu’s website. 

This year Varda debuted her new film Les 3 Boutons (The 3 Buttons) along with Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s short De Djess, starring her sister and collaborator Alba Rohrwacher.

Les 3 Boutons and De Djess turned out to be the most innovative films at this Venice festival in the short film category, both showing promise for narrative features. Featuring provocative iconography, the films were good tales exploring charismatic themes about women and fashion.

Miu Miu contacted Varda and gave her free rein to make her film. Les 3 Boutons is the story of a bold young girl (Jasmine Thiré) who is uninterested in fairly tales but values the reality of the world she lives in. Jasmine has grown up on a farm but wants to go to school in Paris. Varda films in her own neighborhood in Paris (“rue Daguerre”) and in the countryside in southern France.

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The panelists. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

An important question asked of Varda is how she “distinguished fashion from costume in her films.” The answer is quite clear in her new short.

She responded, “The most minimal element, the most essential one in clothing, is the button. I put it into the hands of a young girl who is unsure of what she wants to do with her life,” a girl who cares more about her three goats than about the fashion culture. Varda’s contrast of farm life with haute couture is symbolized by a haunting gargantuan crimson dress and a milkmaid’s rubber apron. The dress looks out of place because of its size but Varda sees to it that it “fits” within the fairy tale she has crafted. The usefulness of the dress is put to question when it becomes decrepit as Jasmine enters a cave through a fold of the dress.

“It’s playing a game with reality. The game is called cinema,” Varda said during the event and in Les 3 Boutons the game is evocative and daring.

After the postman brings Jasmine packages and news, she departs for Paris. Along the way she loses buttons from her pinafore on the street, which are put to use by those who find them. This is an idea that Varda said she has already explored in The Gleaners and I, a documentary that explores how people engage with discarded objects. Varda’s use of story and chararcter in Les 3 Boutons challenges the dominance of fashion in our lives and reminds us that beneath the glamour of fabric are real people with ambitions and dreams.

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Agnès Varda. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

As Varda explained to the audience, “the offer to make the film came from a high fashion house, of which I don’t know a thing. I’m more inspired by simple jobs.” All the same, this inventive director took the challenge and explained how she worked with the project. “I immediately saw the contradictory juxtaposition of farm life and couture.” She explained the essence of Les 3 Boutons this way:

I’d like the film to convey the impression of a fantasy, as well as a reflection about evening dresses worn by God knows who and for God knows what, and then a rubber apron for milking cows and goats. The contradiction itself between these two types of clothing tells us about a totally unfair and unbalanced society. There’s always this contrast of life. That’s it: princesses and stupid stories. The bang. The spell’s over at midnight. Then they have old clothes. A smock. The smock means schools. They’re good. Schools mean education. The ambition to do something with one’s life. So its like pulling little strings of what I know about life. It’s images of life.

Also drawing from her personal experience, Alice Rohrwacher’s film Le Djess was shot in Venice at “Hotel Excelsior” during the winter. Normally this plush luxury hotel is the festival site for publicists, directors, stars, film critics, and the wealthy on holiday. Rohrwacher was asked to use Miu Miu’s clothing in the film, and as with Les 3 Boutons , clothing plays the lead part. But Rohrwacher makes it clear that the clothing in the film was “made for the new Miu Miu collection.”

“The main character is a garment”, says Rohrwacher. “But when I put myself in the shoes of a garment, the garment doesn’t understand all our discussions so we decided to shoot the film in an “invented language.” This is a style that is currently cinematic fashion particularly in the work of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009) and Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, 2010). Greek actor Ariane Labad, who is married to Lanthimos, acted in a short film directed by Tsangari in a haute couture project entitled Capsule, a mythic tale about eight women on the Greek Cyclades. The short was made under the same premises as the films for “Miu Miu Tales” and commissioned for the ‘DesteFashionCollection’ by Greek art collector Dakis Joannou. The brilliantly made “Capsule” is reminiscent of Rohrwacher’s short.

In De Djess, several dresses are fetched from the ocean and brought into the hotel. Beautiful and fashionable women are photographed by paparazzi as they model each dress. A maid in the hotel is able to awaken a dress thrown on the floor by one of the models. The talking dress, portrayed in stop motion, has its own argot and challenges the paparazzi and their myopic, distorted view of women. Rohrwacher, like Varda, challenges the artifice of fashion promotion for women and presents an alternative vision of women’s wardrobes.

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Alice Rohrwacher. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

Since 1979 Créteil Films de Femmes (Créteil International Women’s Film Festival) has been held in a Parisian suburb. Créteil is a cutting edge platform for films made by women with discussions their makers. To some extent this kind of space is being created on the fringe of Cannes and Venice almost 40 years after Créteil was founded. If festivals do not incorporate more women in their divisions, such events will remain on the sidelines and continue to happen through corporate sponsorship. Government subsidies and tickets sales at the box office pay for the Créteil Films de Femmes Festival, one of the few feminist festivals in the world. Ironically, it is high profile fashion conglomerates that have paid for these new film forums at the A-festivals, entities that have historically made a fortune on women with commercial products such as lipstick, handbags, and clothing.

Women, who want their work recognized at festivals like Cannes and Venice, have criticized the near exclusion of women in the official competition. Fashion companies and entrepreneurs have gotten the message and have created showcases of distinguished actors and directors at these festivals. The slick packaging “for ladies” is seen in advertising, retail stores, boutiques, and fashion shows. The promotion of women in film as fringe events at the “A-List festivals” comes from enterprises noted for creating a sophisticated artifice of images for women. They are on the spot listening to the demands of women for inclusion at festivals. Yet, if the same kind of festival sidebar existed for men, it would be ridiculed and considered absurd. The question is why not bring these films and their makers into their proper categories instead of relying on events sponsored by corporations?

Events with corporate sponsors at festivals have strict parameters. The small room at Hotel Excelsior where Varda and Rohrwacher discussed their films at the 72nd Venice Film Festival in September had seats for about 25 women with standing room in the back. “Miu Miu” had exclusive rights to the sessions and controlled the interviews, which explains why there was very little press coverage of the event by journalists. There were also no headphones for translations. Some of the seats in the room were reserved although that information was not made available beforehand to the public.

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The audience at the event. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

All of the directors chosen for “Miu Miu Tales” are exceptional. This is not the point. The cross fertilization of art and commerce is abundantly evident. Varda has won numerous awards at festivals and For making Les 3 Boutons she was pleased to have access to a fantastic crew and even a woman electrician. These are the kinds of conditions women need to come fully into their own, making films about women at all kinds of work and engaged in every kind of cultural achievement.

The panel moderator concluded that it was important to “not be constrained by fashion (as she pointed to Varda), but supported by it,” a double entendre significant of the nature of this fashion-house-supported film project, an idea that Varda affirmed.

After the panel ended, I went up to Varda’s “publicist,” who turned out to be her daughter, the delightful Rosalie Varda, who is a member of the prestigious French “Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.” Rosalie has dedicated her life to promoting her mother’s films and assisting her. She told me about their website Ciné-Tamaris and, like her mother, she’d heard of agnès films, explaining that we are mentioned on their website. She then introduced me to her mother, who warmly agreed to a photograph outside of the Hotel Excelsior en plein air. This was a nice moment and she was appreciative of the recognition women have given her and her films at festivals. She asked me if I did something other than going to film festivals and I was happy to tell her that I screened her films in cinema courses at San Francisco City College. Then, a woman who wanted a selfie with Agnes interrupted my meeting with one of the most important women in film.

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Agnès Varda poses for Moira Sullivan’s camera after the event

For me, the “Miu Miu Tales” showcase of innovative work by women was the most inspirational event of the 2015 Venice Film Festival. These films made under strict conditions revealed the extraordinary potential for women with the proper funding. Granted, Varda and Rohrwacher are established in their own right, but there are women out there who need to tell their tales under their own right as well and film festivals need to support and screen their work as part of the main event.

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