Designer Spotlight: Sandy Powell

Picture heavy post.

This post is even shorter again than the last; I had planned to post it in February but completely forgot to finish it, so it’s a little slapdash. It’s also formatted a little differently and I’ve left out so many of the films I’ve seen that she’s worked on, because I got a bit overwhelmed.

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The third post in my ‘Designer Spotlight’ series is focused on Sandy Powell OBE. Born in 1960, Powell is a British costume designer who has won three Academy Awards (for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator and The Young Victoria) and worked with directors such as Derek Jarman (Caravaggio is her first film credit), Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes.

Like Colleen Atwood, Powell often collaborates with one of my favourite directors – this time, with Todd Haynes. She designed the costumes for one of my all-time favourite movies, Velvet Goldmine, a glam-rock faux biopic which marries the career of David Bowie with the narrative structure of Citizen Kane. Naturally, the costumes are a vital element of the film, aiding in the construction of the central character Brian Slade and all those around him.

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This is my absolute favourite costume of the entire film. It’s like a fop and a glam-rock star had a baby. The contrasting textures and competing patterns should be overwhelming but they’re tied together with the colour palette, lilac being used as an anchor throughout. You can see the costume in action in this video.

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The feathered neck piece is so dramatic, which works perfectly for this scene: the ‘death’ of Brian Slade, which turns out to be a hoax. The silver bodysuit is the perfect colour to show up the bright red blood.

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Again, the contrasting textures are eye-catching and the costume recalls 18th and 19th century men’s fashions.

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This scene is a lot of fun and there are so many fabulous costumes in it. Mandy’s dress in the first screencap above is easily my favourite: I love all the colours, the oversized hat and the gorgeous platform sandals.

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I love how everyone in Brian’s entourage sort of has a theme with their costumes. Mandy has her leopard print for one, seen here in this magnificent skirt suit.

I apologise for the quality of the Velvet Goldmine screencaps. I have a really old copy of the movie and the resolution is clearly not that great.

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Miss Julie, 2014 (52 Films by Women #5)

Image of Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie sitting on Colin Farrell as John's lap. Miss Julie is a redhead woman in blue dress with a scoop neck. Colin Farrell is a dark-haired man wearing a tan waistcoat and white shirt. They are sitting on a chair in a 19th century kitchen in front of a lit stove.I’m falling a little behind on these write-ups but number 5 for 52 Films by Women was Miss Julie directed by Liv Ullmann. Miss Julie, based on the play by August Strindberg, takes place over the course of one night (Midsummer Night’s Eve), and has only three characters: the titular Miss Julie played by Jessica Chastain; John played by Colin Farrell and Kathleen played by Samantha Morton. This adaptation sees the story set in Ireland, rather than Sweden.

Movie still showing three people standing in a 19th century kitchen - the view shows a cabinet on the left, a doorway in the middle. The first person, a woman, is wearing a white apron and has her hands folded. The second person has her back to the camera, wearing a blue velvet jacket. The third man is wearing a waistcoat and white shirt, his hands behind his back.Class, power and social structures (and how they are changing) are explored through the emotional monologues of the three characters. The most interesting aspect is undoubtedly the raw and intense acting, and I think it will be too ‘slow’ for anyone not invested in that.

Movies like this can be hit or miss for me, but I found Miss Julie engaging because of the excellent performances from Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell and especially Jessica Chastain. It was emotionally draining just to watch Chastain’s performance – I can’t imagine what the experience would’ve been like for her, bringing up all that turmoil and agony. Even at the beginning when there is an almost playfulness (maybe) to her actions, her pain is quick to surface in between when we see tears come to her eyes.

I know pretty much nothing about the play (except what I’ve now read on Wikipedia), but that’s hardly surprising given my knowledge of theatre is limited to the musical variety. It does still have much of the feel of a stage play, rather than being cinematic, but that doesn’t bother me (mostly because of the performances, but also because that never bothers me much). I’ve seen it described as claustrophobic but it didn’t feel that way to me.

A closely cropped movie still showing Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain from the side. They both have their eyes closed and strands of hair hanging in their faces.The first thing that struck me, though, was the way it looked. The cinematography is quite static in contrast to the tumultuous emotions expressed by the characters. There are a lot of airy, beautifully lit shots. It’s just gorgeous to look at in general. I particularly liked when there was a mixture of colours on the actors’ faces – the blue of natural light from outside, mixed with the yellow of candlelight. You can see this in the photo above.

The quality of light in this film just kills me. It’s so clear. And it really does give the feeling of an airy house with huge windows letting in all that gorgeous natural light.

A close-up still of Jessica Chastain. Her shoulders and head are visible, and her red hair is pulled back with tendrils around her face. There is a shallow depth of field so only she is in focus.It may sound cliched and a little obvious as it’s said about many redheads, but there is something of a Pre-Raphaelite model about Chastain. That last shot of her definitely put me in mind of Millais’ Ophelia.

It’s quite different from most period dramas I’ve seen; it’s a heavy film and I did need some breaks but it’s definitely worth watching.

Screencaps from here.

The picture below contains a spoiler for the ending but the play was written over 100 years ago, so I’m including it. I wanted to show what I meant about the painting comparison.

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Hysteria, 2011

I’d like to note that this period/area of history is not my particular forte (I’m more well-versed in the history of cinema, fashion and visual art of the 20th century) so I can’t necessarily tell which bits are accurate and which aren’t. And this is more of a ramble than a review.

When I first heard about the movie Hysteria I was immediately intrigued – a movie about the invention of the vibrator? Starring one of my favourites, Maggie Gyllenhaal? Colour me yes! Since then my anticipation has grown and I’m so happy that I have a local cinema that will bring interesting films like this one to the city I live in so I could see it on the big screen. The film, directed by Tanya Wexler, is a not-entirely-fictionalised account of the invention of the vibrator, though looks a little more at the surrounding issues and centres on Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who is frustrated with the archaic medical establishment he has to work in. He ends up working for a Dr Dalrypmle, and helps him treat his patients: generally upper (and possibly middle) class women who are suffering from ‘hysteria‘. The ‘pelvic massages’ Mortimer has to perform prove to be too taxing and he develops a bad hand cramp – this is where his gadget-minded friend (played by Rupert Everett) steps in and together they essentially invent the first vibrator.

Whilst the finer details are not always historically accurate the essential truth is there: it was invented to treat ‘female hysteria’ (a diagnosis which the audience learns, disturbingly, at the end of the film only ceased in 1952…and an accusation and assumption that I think is still often thrown around to silence women today.) It’s the exact kind of bawdy, nudge nudge wink wink British humour that I love – it’s sometimes very obvious but that isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in my books. The characters are over the top, at times, and there is an air of exaggeration to the whole film but it didn’t hinder my enjoyment. (I tend to like things a little on the hammy side, anyway.)

That at one point it essentially takes three men (wearing goggles, as seen above), one wielding the newly invented vibrator (though without this name) to give one woman a paroxysm (orgasm) perhaps speaks to the underlying idea of men’s ignorance and disbelief that anything but penetration from a man could bring a woman pleasure. And their complete ignorance, in fact, that what they were doing was sexual and not just merely a medical procedure. If it weren’t for Charlotte’s (Gyllenhaal) comments about the true nature of the procedure (ie she tells Mortimer that it is about sexual pleasure for the women) I wonder if this would seem more like using female sexuality just for the laughs, so to speak. Not, of course, that sex can’t be funny (but perhaps this is something to ponder at length, rather than in this quickly put together post.)

Of course, the subject of female hysteria is not inherently funny. In fact, the film hints at the mortifying consequences, such as institutionalisation and surgical hysterectomy in ‘extreme cases’ (as Charlotte is threatened with both of these herself but Mortimer comes to her rescue, which is slightly infuriating – that she is such a strong character but still needs to be ‘saved’ by a man because of the time? Or because of the conventions of romantic comedy? Of course this can also be seen that Mortimer finally realises that Charlotte was right all along and female hysteria is bunk and not simply the hero riding in to save the day).* Which is why the overall levity of the film was so important to me – it doesn’t make light of the situations that women would have faced but uses humour to highlight them. Comedy and comedians has been under scrutiny recently and I think it’s important to note that humour, whilst we can be critical of it and talk about things that many people (myself included) believe shouldn’t be joked about, can be a powerful tool to talk about important issues. Whilst Hysteria maybe doesn’t quite make it to groundbreaking territory and I felt like it could have done more with the subject, pushed the boundaries a little more, it’s still a breath of mainly fresh air in the genre of romantic comedy/historical comedy, which can be very stagnant and samey. Not that it doesn’t stick to certain rom-com conventions such as hate, or disagreement, turning to love, for one. Perhaps the film plays it a little safe in some respects but I don’t think it pretends to be anything other than a historical romantic comedy.

I always enjoy Maggie Gyllenhall onscreen and she tends to pick very interesting roles. She dons a British accent for this and she does a very good job (a bad accent will often just distract me from an entire film, no matter how great it is otherwise). She plays the passionate Charlotte extremely well. Oh, and Rupert Everett as the electricity obsessed aristocrat, Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, is very funny and quite perfect in this role.

*I don’t know if this actually happened as I’ve only read the wikipedia article on female hysteria at present – I didn’t feel much like being enraged at past medical practices nor to think of any current parallels

Wikipedia | IMDB

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