Mode in France (1984)
Directed by William Klein
March 29 at the Museum of Art and Design, part of its Klein retrospective
Former Vogue photographer Klein revisited the haute couture scene that launched his star with Mode in France, a free-associative not-quite-doc that warmly examines its fundamentally superficial subject while also suggesting a certain ambivalence about it. Come for the obnoxious and adamantly 80s synth score (composed by Serge Gainsbourg), stay to watch Grace Jones perform a play by Marivaux in a g-string (in the section on Azzedine Alaïa).
Apparently inspired by the sheer force of will to stand out shared by the film’s most famous onscreen presences—Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, agnès b., etc.—Mode in France is marked by a gaggle of stylistic gambits that evidence Klein’s status as a post-Godardian documentarian. What would have been unremarkable footage of a fashion show is analyzed through a stuttering effect (a reworking of the slow-motion and strategic pausing used by Godard in Sauve qui peut (la vie)) that undermines and decomposes the fluidity and determination of runway models at work. Vérité footage of French preschoolers playing dress-up and fighting among themselves is juxtaposed with non sequitur staged scenes of models clad in Gaultier get-ups caricaturishly engaging in la vie de la rue. The virtuosic lateral tracking shots used during these segments simultaneously recall the supermarket long take from Tout va bien and anticipate the tableaux vivants of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (in which Gaultier’s designs are similarly crucial to Peter Greenaway’s fussy mise en scène). Fashion effectively calls attention to the inherent artifice of all appearance, and Klein does an admirable job highlighting this fact with playfulness and formal rigor.
The section on Chantal Thomass, presented as a series of confessionals performed by individual models, is an investigation of surface, but it’s just as much about the superficiality of interiority. “The Me you see here doesn’t really exist. And so I began modeling to exist more fully,” one Sartre-influenced mannequin opines. Jean-Charles de Castelbajac compares the designer’s vocation to pimping, and Klein explores this notion by visually unpacking the political, moral and existential dimensions of the fashion industry. Indeed, Mode in France works because of its maker’s innate ability to wring ideas (and unintentional comedy) from the ostensibly insubstantial.