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film : interview

Frédéric Tcheng

by Paul Dallas

Haute couture, vérité documentary, and the ghost of Christian Dior.


Still from Dior and I. Courtesy of the artist.

The histories of fashion, art, and film often intersect in unexpected ways. I was reminded of this recently while watching Les enfants terribles, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1952 film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s classic novel about devious siblings immersed in a private world of games, role-playing, and self-destruction. It’s a strange, dark parable of creativity and alienation wrapped in Melville’s stylish production. And notably, the film’s opulent costumes were created by Christian Dior, the preeminent romantic post-war designer.

Admittedly, his name might have slipped by unnoticed in the credits had I not also recently seen Frédéric Tcheng’s new documentary Dior and I. Tcheng’s film, which details the creation of Raf Simons’s first couture collection for the House in 2012, is as much an absorbing ticking-clock vérité as it is a moody meditation on time and transference. Throughout, Tcheng artfully deploys archival footage of Dior, often slowed down and paired with an intimate voice-over narration taken from the designer’s 1952 memoir. The effect is haunting and emotional—which is appropriate, given that Dior and I is essentially a ghost story.

In Tcheng’s film, the House—the atelier in particular—is where the drama unfolds. But the House also registers as a kind of psychic space. Dior, a deeply private man, spent his early childhood isolated in a picturesque maison in Normandy where he immersed himself in the private world of his imagination. Even after he became an international figure in 1947 with the debut of his iconic New Look collection, he remained tethered, psychologically and creatively, to this house, preserving it exactly as it had been decades earlier. It’s pink and gray palette and flower gardens became signature elements in his designs.

One can guess that Dior must have felt some kinship with Cocteau’s enfants, who spend their final days holed up in an opulent mansion filled with their playthings, prisoners to their private fantasy world. Dior’s house, which is now the Christian Dior Museum, makes a critical appearance in Tcheng’s film. Simons, who has just taken over as artistic director of Dior, is flown by helicopter to visit the estate. Sitting in the garden, among Dior’s beloved flowers, Simons admits that he could not continue reading the designer’s memoir because the parallels were deeply unsettling.

Time moves and yet it doesn’t. The scene captures what Tcheng is truly after with Dior and I: the uncanny continuities between artists across time. The fifty-five-year gap between Dior’s death and Simons’s arrival collapses in ninety elegant minutes.

Paul Dallas Dior and I feels very intimate. We’re visiting the highly rarified world of haute couture, and yet it’s brought alive in your film in a way that’s almost tender.

Frédéric Tcheng I was looking for a story and for characters that could make fashion a worthwhile subject for me personally. I wasn’t looking to reinforce familiar criticisms about the fashion industry. Some people find it hard to imagine a dialogue about fashion that doesn't start or end with a mea culpa about the industry’s sins. This attitude is very odd to me because it’s also an industry filled with hard-working artists. My approach with this film was to focus on their struggles within the system, whether they are the creative director, the seamstress, or like me, a film director. That's why the film is called Dior and I.

PD The making of the collection and the making of the film happened in parallel. You and Raf each had eight weeks to produce your debuts—his first couture collection and your first feature documentary as director.

FT I knew going in that I wanted to make an ensemble film that would focus on Raf’s encounter with the atelier and address the weight of Dior’s legacy. The eight-week deadline meant that we were going to focus exclusively on one collection. The ticking clock is a classic documentary structure, so it made sense dramatically. But beyond the behind-the-scenes action, I was always on the lookout for something more universal. “What’s the film about?” It’s something that we always asked in film school, and it’s something I learned again while working on Valentino: The Last Emperor (2009) and co-directing Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011). The drama needs to unfold within the characters. That’s what I wanted to hone in on with Dior and I.

As an editor, I’m used to observing for long periods of time before a story matures in my head. At some point during the shoot, my sound person—whom I’ve known for years and whose opinion I respect—said, “I don’t know what we’re doing. It seems like you don’t have a point of view.” It really shook me. Early on, I wanted to shoot everything, and my crew wondered what I was after. But I work very much by intuition. I have to find the film as I progress. I wait until my heart’s beating a little faster, then I know there is a story that I really care about.


Still from Dior and I. Courtesy of the artist.

PD You and Raf each find a personal way of interpreting Dior’s history and, in a sense, reconfiguring the narrative of the House.

FT Raf has a radical approach to fashion. Unlike other designers, he doesn’t start with the surface “look” of a garment. He starts with its shape. He’s interested in construction and tailoring, and he wants to change how garments work on the body. In 2012, Raf is confronted with the challenge of how to reinterpret the iconic looks people have come to expect from Dior. It was clear that he wanted to concentrate on the first ten years of the House, from 1947 to ’57, which is the time when Christian Dior was designing. For his first collection, Raf resurrects some of the iconic looks and then alters their shape. He pairs Dior’s most famous design, the Bar jacket, which is a very sculptural, with skinny, black, contemporary “cigarette” pants. When Dior first unveiled the Bar jacket in 1947, it was a romantic statement against the utilitarian fashions of the Second World War. Raf’s juxtaposition of past and present creates an entirely new silhouette. I realized later that I was trying to do something similar. Combining the archival material and voice-over from Christian Dior’s memoir with the vérité footage of the atelier today became my way of confronting the past and present in the film.

PD There’s a key scene early in the film with the unveiling of the toiles. It’s our first glimpse at Raf’s take on Dior.

FT Toiles are mock-ups of the dresses produced in cheap, white fabric. They are unique to haute couture. The name means “canvas” in French, so it has an obvious painterly association. But it also has a film association. “Toile” is used colloquially in French to refer to the movie screen or simply to a movie. This is what gave me the idea to project the archival images on the toiles during one section of the film. It was about Raf’s modern designs confronting these ghostly, ethereal images of the past. It speaks not only to Raf’s challenge as a designer, but also to the intersections of fashion and cinema.

PD This confrontation between past and present is also echoed on the film’s soundtrack.

FT My editor Julio Perez and I gathered electronic music that conveyed a sense of repetition, modernity, and minimalism. We took our cue from artists that Raf listens to, such as Plastikman’s Richie Hawtin, and other electronic bands like The Knife and the xx. In parallel, I worked closely with Ha-yang Kim, an experimental composer and cellist, who created the score. We were interested in capturing a sense of mystery with the archival footage. We had in mind Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master, and atonal works by Debussy and Schoenberg. We wanted a shifting, unsettling mood that would suggest a ghost story, or a thriller. As the film progresses, Ha-yang’s classical score becomes increasingly electronic. It’s a subtle shift, but we wanted to convey the sense that Dior’s and Raf’s themes converged toward the end, as Raf’s vision becomes more distinctively his own.

My friend Omar Berrada, who did the voice-over in the film, turned me on to the work of artist Jalal Toufic, specifically his concept of “untimely collaboration.” It’s the idea that artists can collaborate across time and space—that it’s a two-way conversation.

PD The film’s voice-over narration is based on Dior by Dior, the designer’s 1957 memoir. It was published the year he died, and there’s a sense that he’s speaking to us from beyond the grave. How did you arrive at the idea of Christian Dior narrating the film?

FT In 2009, I planned to make a film about my family in China. I wanted to use a voice-over of my ancestors’ stories on top of images of contemporary China. The idea was to play with the way sound and image can tell two different stories, or respond to the same story. This idea reemerged while I was editing Dior and I. I began to think about what it would mean to have Christian Dior narrate the film. To have this voice-over, written fifty-five years ago, become a hinge between past and present. At times it’s paired with the archival footage, and sometimes it’s heard on top of contemporary images.

I discovered Dior by Dior when I began researching the film. For some reason, I was drawn to this slim, gray book at the bottom of a box that I was sent. It’s not a glamorous account of all the people Dior knew then or the parties he attended. It’s a very humble book. He writes about the work and his collaborators. He details the labor and effort required to create a collection, from the initial sketch to the final design. And he writes about how you console someone you’ve upset. This approach inspired me to focus on the human experience of the creative process. When I reread passages during the shoot, I often felt as though I were reading a description of exactly what I’d witnessed that day. The process and emotions were the same, despite the half-century gap in time.

PD In the book, Dior describes an introspective struggle between his private self and his public image. It’s a theme that you explore in Dior and I.

FT It was the other aspect that drew me to the book. The idea of a public image is that you’re not physically present but people experience you. Dior found public exposure uncomfortable and ultimately alienating. Raf is also someone who’s resisting it, and my film is, in part, about his journey into the spotlight. That’s why I use the camera flash as a motif throughout the film. For me, the ending of the film, when Raf is mobbed by the paparazzi after the show, is scary. Facing a wall of cameras like that can be an out-of-body experience. At that moment, Raf’s life has changed forever, and this transformation comes with the uneasiness of exposure. I hope this comes across in the film.

Of course, this puts me in a contradictory position. On one hand, I’m lamenting the culture of publicity, and on the other I’m subjecting Raf to it by making the film. But his reaction to the film has helped me come to terms with it. He’s been very supportive, in his own private manner.

PD Raf visits Christian Dior’s home in Normandy. Sitting in the garden, he talks about reading the memoir and admits that he couldn’t continue: the semblance to his own experience was too unsettling, too uncanny.

FT Raf has a complicated relationship with Christian Dior. As artistic director, he’s required to channel Dior’s spirit. At the same time, he must remain himself—perhaps more so than he’s ever been. This was Raf’s first couture collection for one of the most esteemed Houses in fashion. The pressure was enormous. While shooting the film, I was fascinated with trying to find the similarities between Raf and Dior. I was interested in this idea of reincarnation. But when I talked with my editor Julio Perez, he said, “We have to find their differences.” It was a breakthrough for me. I realized that Raf’s real struggle was how to remain Raf Simons in the midst of taking on this role. It became a story like Hitchcock’s Rebecca—the house is haunted and the character must emancipate himself from the ghost.

PD How do you feel the film has affected him?

FT I’ve noticed that he’s been exploring ideas of exposure and privacy in his work since the film. In June 2014, he presented a menswear collection under his own label that included several family pictures printed on the garments. There were images of his parents falling in love, and portraits of himself in his early twenties. I’ve also noticed how he has delved into the past lately at Dior, particularly the ’60s and the ’70s, as if to challenge what he said in the film about the past not being romantic to him. I don’t think it’s a contradiction. I see him as an artist who’s constantly redefining himself.

PD It’s clear that the film is not simply a portrait of Raf Simons. We spend a lot of time in the atelier, getting to know the artists and learning about the craft. The two premières Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly are especially vivid characters.

FT The atelier was the very first place we went when we started shooting. We tried to keep their point of view and not get caught up with the usual hierarchy of the fashion world. It helped that the seamstresses are very direct and accessible. They were wary at first. They told us: “TV crews come and go, and we never see the result.” It reminded me that I had a responsibility towards them as subjects. It was humbling. Even though I told them I was trying to make a theatrical feature, they didn’t really believe me until they saw the film in Paris last summer. It was great to see the film through their eyes. But it was also a big test. I think they recognized themselves and liked the film, which was a big relief for me.


Still from Dior and I. Courtesy of the artist.

PD How did you reconcile in your own mind the degree to which the camera affected the reality that you were seeking to portray?

FT Frederick Wiseman was certainly a cinematic reference point. I saw Crazy Horse (2012) just before I started shooting. It’s a film I really admire. He takes you behind-the-scenes of the famous erotic Paris dance revue, and it’s an institutional portrait. But it’s very different stylistically from his other films. There’s more attention paid to the film’s visual construction. You see this especially in how Wiseman photographs the dance sequences. There’s a sense of pleasure in it. You sense him indulging, and the results are quite beautiful. Obviously, Dior and I is not a Wiseman film. I’m more inclined to capture an emotional landscape and how characters transform.

Recently, I found a Scorsese quote I like in which he describes the Maysles’ camera as “an inquisitive presence, but also a loving presence, an emphatic presence, attuned to the most sensitive emotional vibrations.” I guess that’s something I strived to do. When I sent Raf the rough cut of my film, I wrote a note that said, “In order for me to make a film, I really need to fall in love with the subjects and the world I’m filming.”

There’s been a conversation recently about vérité films in the age of selfies. Is it still possible to make observational films when people are so used to performing for the camera? Richard Brody, in a New Yorker piece on the Maysles, points out that all vérité documentaries are essentially participatory. I’ve been thinking about what that means for me. In many ways, I’m very old fashioned, and I believe in vérité documentary filmmaking. That being said, Raf is a reluctant protagonist. With Dior and I, the camera is, in part, the subject of the film.


Paul Dallas is a Brooklyn-based writer and programmer with a background in architecture. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Filmmaker, Cinema Scope, Interview, and Indiewire. He has curated programs for the Guggenheim, Maylses Cinema, Times Square Arts, and Van Alen Institute.

Tags:
documentary film
french film
fashion industry
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