Diabolical visions


Cobra Woman 1944

The Fashion in Film festival is one of the arms of an exhibition, research and education project based at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London. This year’s festival runs between 1-12 December 2010 at Tate Modern, BFI Southbank, The Horse Hospital and Barbican. The brochure bills the event as ‘a major extravaganza in costume spectacle, dance and diabolical glamour’, promising ‘an intoxicating exploration … throughout European and American cinema’, with screenings of rare and unseen films, special commissions and related installations. Among the cornucopia of delights on offer are Robert Siodmak’s 1944 Maria Montez vehicle Cobra Woman, early colour-tinted films such as Pathé Frères La Peine du talion (1906) and Métempsycose (1907) (both part of the Tate Modern’s fabulous ‘Underground Opulence’ strand) and Germaine Dulac’s rarely screened La Princesse Mandane (1928). There’s also a panel discussion on ‘The gossamer wings of early cinema’ at the BFI Southbank on 9 December, and many screenings are introduced by experts. The programme is bursting with spectacle and exoticism, celebrating the importance of fashion and costume to early and underground cinema. Key themes are orientalism, fashion’s devilish appeal, fantasy and the recurrence of butterfly imagery.

Le Spectre rouge 1907

My review focuses on the ‘Dreams of Darkness and Colour’ screenings at the Barbican on Saturday 4 December 2010, which featured a programme of early colour-tinted shorts at 4 pm followed by La Princesse Mandane at 6 pm. The 4 pm show was well-attended and the audience was agog with anticipation — though some spirits were a little dampened by the 15-minute delay in starting, for which no explanation was given. All was forgiven once things kicked off with Anna Battista’s introduction to Nino Oxilia’s sumptuous melodrama Rapsodia satanica (1915/17). Anna’s stylish, eccentric outfit and her quirky approach were an appropriate accompaniment to Oxilia’s film and the early colour shorts: Le Spectre rouge (1907), La Danse du feu (1899), La creación de la serpentina (1909) and Le Farfalle (1907), which were shown in digital transfer. These ebullient trick films featured magicians conjuring up extraordinary visions of women dancers performing serpentine routines using their costumes to dazzle and seduce. The colour effects were dramatic, fragile and elusive by turn, while the robust live piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley added to the diabolical ambience.

Rapsodia satanica 1915/17

The shorts were suitable curtain-raisers to the sensuous main attraction, Rapsodia satanica, shown in a restored print from the Netherlands Filmmuseum that had English-language inter-titles. Featuring a diva performance by Lyda Borelli as Alba d’Oltrevita, who sells her soul to the devil in order to retrieve her lost youth, and the distinctive costumes of Spanish fashion designer Mariano Fortuny, this film is partly colour-tinted with some stencil printing. Combined with a stunning use of light on fabric, facilitated by highly melodramatic, histrionic acting and body movement, the colour helps to create an enclosed world of passion, seduction and intrigue that leads to a tragic outcome. The film’s play with costume is epitomised by Alba’s manipulation of veils that produce a ghostly effect, and the use of mirrors to fragment ‘real’ space. Both these strategies, influenced by Fortuny, contribute to the fantastical atmosphere. Rapsodia satanica is without doubt one of the festival’s must-sees.

Rapsodia satanica

Another is Germaine Dulac’s La Princesse Mandane, screened in a lovely 35 mm print with English translation of the French inter-titles streamed live. This is a witty, inventive feature that foregrounds fantasy (much of it is taken up by the hero’s dream) and the exoticism of sets and costume. Stephen Horne provided an equally inventive live musical accompaniment, perfectly attuned to the film, that was hugely appreciated by the audience. The focus on fantasy allowed Dulac to employ avant-garde techniques to great effect in a feature-film format. Creating a hybrid, imaginary world mixing orientalism with other styles, she comments on the deceptive nature of costume and glamour, making the naive hero the butt of her wicked humour. This screening was pure delight, and gave a taste of the festival’s overall approach.

La Princesse Mandane 1928

The Fashion in Film festival sets out to attract a wide audience and is not an academic event. Even so, it could have provided a little more context, in terms of film history, the relationship between fashion and film and the significance of spectacular costumes for early and silent cinema. For me, the Barbican screenings were both a revelation and left many questions unanswered. So, an afternoon and early evening very well spent, which left me yearning for more.

Fashion Film Festival

© Pam Cook