Chienn Hsiang, Exit, 2014, color, sound, 94 minutes.


EXIT IS FIRST OF ALL an arresting and unbearable portrayal of loneliness, which is fast becoming one of the early twenty-first century’s chief motifs. The debut narrative feature of renowned Taiwanese cinematographer Chienn Hsiang, the film could be classified as a collaboration with its main actress and vehicle, Chen Shiang-Chyi, a veritable auteur’s actress, best known for her work with directors Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang.

Ling, the character Chen portrays, is an abandoned person. Her husband has gone to Shanghai, leaving her behind in a stifling nameless second-tier Taiwanese city. She calls his mobile phone several times a day; he never picks up. Her twenty-something daughter spends most of her time with her boyfriend, barely communicating with Ling, and when she does she makes no effort to hide her bored contempt. Soon she is laid off from the garment factory where she has spent most of her life bent over a sewing machine. After she experiences hot flashes and misses her period she visits her doctor, who informs her she is menopausal—at the age of forty-five.

Ling is a prisoner of her own body: The exit the title refers to is that wished-for threshold her desperation prevents her from uncovering. Chienn deploys the wide-shot throughout; Ling is seen in frames-within-frames-within-frames: doorways, dilapidated walls, windows, rooms beyond rooms. There is a precision, even perfection to these shots that makes Chen’s performance all the more devastating. Much as Delphine Seyrig did with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), Chen has authored not just a believable character but also a definitive archetype of a heterosexual middle-age woman at a particular place and time: a person that no one wants to talk to, whose “use-value” has long expired. Exit may be one of the most powerful feminist critiques to come out of East Asian cinema in a long while.

Showing very little in the way of blatant emotion, Chen’s Ling is on edge throughout the film, which takes place over several weeks. Her discomfort and angst are never absent, often manifesting in a clammy appearance. Indeed the fragility we see on screen is real: Chen fell ill on the second day of filming and remained so throughout the shoot, likening her fevered state to the midlife despair Ling walks in every day. At one heartbreaking, understated moment, Ling hesitates in the middle of a busy street, unable to decide whether to finish crossing, before finally giving up and turning back around. There is no easy way out when you are entrapped by the world’s icy indifference to your plight; you have done all the right things and this is your non-reward.

Though no one cares much for her, Ling continues to carry out familial duties. (Were this a Lars von Trier film, this persistence would be depicted as pathetic; Chienn shows it as natural.) Once she is laid off, she visits her ailing mother-in-law in the hospital every day—the only person in her extended family to do so—and even here she receives little in the way of human contact, as the old woman is usually unconscious. Across from her mother-in-law’s bed, Ling is bothered by the cries and gasps of a middle-aged man with bandaged eyes. Like her, he has no family to speak of; he never receives a visitor.

The man has suffered some traumatic accident. We don’t know what. He is unable to talk; he can only cry and groan. The hospital’s nursing staff is borderline neglectful, and Ling begins to tend to the man. In fact it takes very little to quiet him: a cool rag on his neck, the feeling of her hand against his cheek. Ling discovers that she and the man are deprived of the same thing: touch. Why is it that the absolute easiest thing we might give is the very thing we are most loath to share?

The invalid’s journey to recovery parallels Ling’s arduous attempt to feel like a human being again. Hands lock in understanding, no stipulations are required. There are no obvious resolutions, no spoiler alert necessary. Neither of them will ever re-attain what they once were. How they might go on, how they might crawl out of the existences they are trapped in, remains an open question. Truth is always shapeless, and the door is over there—if you manage to get it open.

Travis Jeppesen

Exit opens in cinemas throughout the UK on April 24.

Derek Jarman, Will You Dance with Me?, 1984, video, color, sound, 78 minutes. Philip Williamson.


THOUGH ONLY SIX YEARS separate Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978) and Derek Jarman’s Will You Dance with Me? (1984), two essential documents of gay London, they are chronicles of entirely different eras. Peck’s feature film debuted a year before Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministry began and three before the first known case of AIDS in the UK was reported; Jarman’s footage, which remained unseen until last year, was shot well into those dual catastrophes. While Peck’s film is more or less fiction, it mixes in vérité elements, recording, sometimes ambivalently, the codes and customs of gay nightlife that would be ebulliently celebrated in Jarman’s dance-floor reportage.

According to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, Peck and Paul Hallam, his cowriter and coproducer on Nighthawks, spent five years planning and raising funds for their film, which centers on the diurnal and nocturnal activities of Jim (Ken Robertson), an out—quietly yet sometimes defiantly so—geography teacher. This compact, exceedingly polite and patient Notting Hill resident spends his days instructing adolescents on the causes of overpopulation in India and showing around the new substitute teacher, Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), who seems to turn to her colleague for the emotional succor that her own husband cannot provide. After sunset, Jim hits the bars, where he cruises, dances, and keeps up his end of desultory conversations that often conclude in a strange—or his own—bed.

We are fully immersed in Jim’s nighttime rituals; the camera often assumes his point of view, his desirous looks either reciprocated or ignored. The thrill and the tedium of his evenings out are equally highlighted; the ecstasy of sleeping with someone new is followed by the dispiriting morning-after small talk, with Jim asking the bulk of the questions while kindly driving his tricks—most of whom are nonprofessional actors, as are the bars’ denizen—to the nearest Tube station. “Don’t you get anxious about whether or not you’re going to see these people again?” Judy asks Jim over drinks at a pub. In boldly addressing that question, Nighthawks gives us one of cinema’s first complex, fully realized gay protagonists.

Jarman, who appears as an extra in Nighthawks, was excitedly experimenting with his new Olympus VHS camcorder during the September 1984 evening that he shot the action at Benjy’s, a gay club in East London’s Mile End district that, this night at least, drew a coed, racially diverse crowd; this on-location assignment was part of the research the queer-cinema firebrand was doing for his friend Peck, who was then planning a neo-noir that would be released in 1987 as Empire State. Every single detail captured in Will You Dance with Me? abounds with ethnographic riches: the New Romantic cutie journaling while nestled in a corner booth, the woman with the T-shirt emblazoned with stenciled letters that read ÉCOLE DE DANSE, the DJ’s cheerful exhortations (“Let’s get it right, let’s get it right!”), the songs he spins (“Let the Music Play,” “Planet Rock,” “Relax,” which is heard at least twice).

As aleatory as this seventy-eight-minute-long record may at first appear, with Jarman flitting from bar to banquette to dance floor and back again, it soon becomes clear that he’s deeply in tune with, well, the rhythm of the night. While Benjy’s patrons get sweaty gyrating to another Frankie Goes to Hollywood set, Jarman—and his camera—grows ever more besotted with a slightly sullen, sporty stud, gracefully orbiting around this Doc Martens–shod twunk. That fit, buzz-cut clubgoer, Philip Williamson, would perform in front of Jarman’s camera once again—not to Hi-NRG hits but to Judi Dench’s voice-over recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnets in The Angelic Conversation (1985).

Melissa Anderson

Nighthawks and Will You Dance with Me? screen April 25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the series “Art of the Real,” which concludes April 26.

Vincente Minnelli, The Band Wagon, 1953, 35 mm, color, sound, 112 minutes. Tony Hunter and Gabrielle Gerard (Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse).


MGM’S BEST MUSICALS personified Show Business as bipolar cottage industry—miracles of scrambled, collaged, precision-tooled, toe-shoe equilibrium. Star-struck, self-aware, and ruthlessly efficient, these engines of chaste desire merged revels and reveries into the ever-present bottom line. Poised betwixt gee-whiz uncomplication and sophisticated manners, their escapades showcased hyperbolic performers, idealized characters, and dazzling shades of homogeneity. Yet the same storylines also incorporated a cheeky penchant for relaxed displacement and rib-poking irony into otherwise corny affirmations. These insanely orderly, happy-peppy-sappy vehicles were given an adventurous kick by dropping strategic hints of chaos and gloom into their midst.

Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) could have been a resilient, pick-yourself-up-by-the-corset-straps cousin to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—a tale of sublimated anxieties, fin de siècle dread, and familial upheaval averted in the nick of time. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) amounted to a chipper yet sardonic back-story to Sunset Boulevard (1950) (think of Jean Hagen’s silent star as the Before-image and Gloria Swanson’s mad recluse as the After). It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) had a salutary postwar/pre–Mad Men cynicism: The emotional messiness, tonal dead zones, and clashing sensibilities all contributed to its dyspeptic, strangely wistful energy.

And then there was Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953). Coming on the heels of backstage/backlot constructions like All About Eve (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (as well as the aforementioned blockbuster Singin’ in the Rain), its inside-Broadway satire was very much the flavor of the moment: Knowingness Parfait. There are enough layers in it to fuel a thousand postgrad theses; the wonder is that the Wooster Group hasn’t yet done a multimedia revamping. The Band Wagon was the Being John Malkovichcum-Birdman of MGM musicals. It can be described as the intersection of stifling high aspirations (“Shut up in our little sweatbox of the arts”) with beautifully disreputable commercial instincts (“That’s entertainment!”).

The film cast Fred Astaire as a has-been musical comedy star: In other words, essentially as himself again, only without the old dapper-playboy-hoofer façade. The movie opens on an auction of his personal memorabilia, where his fabled top hat and walking stick won’t even fetch fifty cents. Oh, the ignominy! He’s become as much of a magnificently obsolescent contraption as the seedy automatons he encounters in a Forty-Second Street arcade. (The regal theaters he once performed in have become carny-style tourist traps: Times Square is represented as a claustrophobic studio set that has the trappings of a stage musical and the alienation effect of The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors routine.) Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant play excitable versions of the movie’s authors, Betty Comden and Adolph Green—she as a wide-eyed bundle of irrational exuberance, he as a hypochondriacally inclined neurotic given to such classic Levantian laments as, “I can stand anything but pain.”

The duo have written a comeback musical called The Band Wagon for Astaire’s Tony Hunter, and they want Broadway’s biggest hotshot to direct. Rather old for a wunderkind, the British star Jack Buchanan nonetheless gives a grandly hammy recital as Jeffrey Cordova, an endearingly pretentious actor-director-impresario who wants to turn their fun, 1930s-style musical romp about a children’s author who churns out Spillane-type pulp fiction on the side into a heavy-breathing retelling of the Faust legend, replete with hellfire and flash-pot Brimstone. (You can see where this might be right in the Wooster Group’s wheelhouse.) Based on the then-celebrated Jose Ferrer (a discount-store Orson Welles probably best remembered now for his Cyrano), while incorporating a lot of Minnelli’s personal mannerisms (not to mention his furnishings), Cordova is a timeless archetype of artistic overreach and self-congratulatory hubris: “There’s nothing in the world as soothing as a smash hit.”

The human anchor of the film is, oddly, Cyd Charisse, in her first starring role at thirty-one: Imposing and impossibly lithe, she’s pop-Cubism in motion (“She came at me in sections” declares Astaire in the “Girl Hunt” production number) yet remarkably down-to-earth. Pauline Kael thought her acting wooden, but playing the ballerina protégé of a Balanchine/Jerome Robbins–type choreographer, her unpolished delivery seems right for a wary, diffident outsider who masks her vulnerabilities by presenting an aura of inscrutability. Charisse was the most abstract figure in musicals, but her movements mesh with Astaire’s conversational patter and dancing in a way that blurs artifice and naturalism. For them, maybe, artifice was second nature, as routine as a smoker gesticulating or a tennis player serving.

Technicolor’s palette never looked wilder or more robust than it does on this Blu-ray transfer, where Minnelli’s extras move through cagey spaces like drill teams dressed up as regular folks on display, herds of Hawaiian shirts, gabardine suits, khaki soldiers, poodle skirts, and yellow turtlenecks moving in casual background formations that would be the envy of General Rommel or Vince Lombardi. The package is skimpy on extras and while it has a perfunctory making-of short and an old PBS documentary on Minnelli, it doesn’t even include the “Two Faced Woman” outtake from the previous edition. And nothing new has been dug up, though sizable chunks were excised prior to the film’s premier to get the running time down under two hours (hence the last third of the movie is basically a string of foreshortened numbers culminating in the epic dance set-piece of “Girl Hunt”).

What it retains though is the commentary track with Liza Minnelli and her friend Michael Feinstein, which turns the movie into a jubilant family scrapbook. That is, if you grew up on movie sets, and Liza seems to have been present for much of The Band Wagon shoot and demonstrates considerable powers of recall for someone who was six at the time: “My dad thought up a lot of that [technical] stuff. My dad invented the crab dolly…. He said I want a camera to be able to move like a person who’s trying to see what’s happening.” (Okay, he didn’t actually invent it, but give the kid a break—and I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnelli refined or tinkered with its design.) I’ve never heard a more infectious commentary track—when she blurts, “I love a director directing a director,” she could be a character in the movie itself, and it’s touching to realize on how many levels this movie affected her.

The first time I heard this supplied a different sort of epiphany. My mother was on her deathbed and I was taking care of her at home; it was just the two of us, in hospice-mode. She had slipped into a coma a few days earlier and nothing more could be done but wait for the end. So to break the silence and maybe ease her passage, or my sorrow, I read to her a bit (Dave Hickey’s “The Little Church of Perry Mason” being apposite somehow) and then put on the DVD of The Band Wagon a friend had given us.

Watching it again, I remembered that at some point mom had worn her hair in the same style Charisse has in the film. Since the movie was in the player anyway, I decided to listen to Liza M.’s commentary. I was quickly hooked by each delighted memory or private joke the film triggered for her, as though her childhood itself had been directed by Vincente after the manner of Meet Me in St. Louis, fact and artistic fancy melding the way Astaire and Charisse did in “Dancing in the Dark.” That dance looked different now: I saw it through her eyes and then realized that Charisse incarnated the way my mother looked to me when I was six (and partly how she always appeared to my father in his vivid imagination). As the number eloquently winds down and the dancers return to their normal selves, the enraptured daughter waxes almost evangelical: “The way this number ends is pure Minnelli. Because music, which is in everybody’s life, and movement, which is in everybody’s life, just goes back—to life.”

My mother died that afternoon. It wasn’t like a movie or anything cinema had prepared me for. Except for an uncanny tranquility that came over me: A feeling that maybe everything that’s lost is simultaneously previewed/reincarnated in the movies. Or in our secret spiritual restorations of them.

Howard Hampton

Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros.

Chantal Akerman, La Captive, 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 118 minutes. Ariana and Andrée (Sylvie Testud and Olivia Bonamy).


THE SINGULARITY OF Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—the passe-partout to unlocking the mystery of cinema’s powers to derange—has never been more eloquently articulated than in Chris Marker’s paradigmatic cine-essay Sans Soleil (1983): “[O]nly one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory,” says narrator Alexandra Stewart, whose hypnotic voice-over consists of passages of letters “sent” to her by Sandor Krasna, Marker’s fictional alter ego. This particular missive dilates on Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie, the protagonist of Hitchcock’s crowning masterpiece, who is consumed by the need to re-create the image of the soignée Madeleine (Kim Novak), the woman he loved and whose death he feels responsible for, through the coarse shopgirl Judy (Novak again). Krasna/Marker notes that he has seen Vertigo nineteen times; much like Scottie, he—and, by extension, all of those seized by cinephilia—finds himself in the grip of the compulsion to revisit, reimagine, relive.

Traces of Hitchcock’s film abound in multiple titles across several genres, most recently—and perversely—in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, whose release later this summer occasions BAMcinématek’s brilliantly conceived series “The Vertigo Effect.” Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix, which screens as a sneak preview on April 30, follows the bizarre reunion of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration-camp survivor who has undergone reconstructive facial surgery, with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Nelly, who gives her name as Esther, is unrecognizable to her spouse, who presumes she is dead and who has seemingly repressed his most unconscionable acts against her. That debasement continues when he despotically remolds the woman he knows as Esther into his wife. Fully compliant in this brutal masquerade, Nelly may appear to be the film’s most self-deluded character—until the film’s astonishing final scene, an ingenious indictment of Johnny’s, and a nation’s, pathologies.

It’s surely no coincidence that Madeleine, the woman with whom Scottie is so deliriously besotted in Vertigo, shares a name with the pastry that serves as the aide-mémoire for the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; in La Captive (2000), her sublime adaptation of the fifth volume of Proust’s magnum opus, Chantal Akerman makes the connection between that sprawling novel and Hitchcock’s movie even more explicit. Dispensing with the book’s belle-epoque time frame, Akerman’s film takes place in present-day Paris, where the mismatched lovers Ariane (Sylvie Testud) and Simon (Stanislas Merhar) live in his palatial apartment. Feverishly jealous, Simon is obsessed with the years he refers to as Ariane’s “other life,” when her romantic relationships were exclusively same-sex. Just as Scottie pursued Madeleine throughout San Francisco in Vertigo, Simon also becomes a possessed private detective, doggedly trailing his inscrutable beloved as she goes from spot to spot in the French capital. His relentless sleuthing eventually leads him to a dyke bar, where he interrogates two friends of Ariane’s. “I’m burning to know what goes on between two women that doesn’t between a man and a woman,” he implores—a query to which there is only one sensible answer: “It can’t be explained.”

As the BAM series’ lineup reveals, Vertigo serves as a crucial referent for several other great movies about sapphic desire. Jenni Olson’s Fog City essay film The Joy of Life (2005) devotes part of its psycho-geographical ruminations—“You fall in love with a girl. You fall in love with a lot of girls. You fall in love with a city”—to Scottie’s rescuing of Madeleine after she jumps into the San Francisco Bay. (Vertigo figures even more prominently in Olson’s latest nimble cine-meditation, The Royal Road, which closes the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” program on April 26.) Dressed in a gray suit that instantly recalls Edith Head’s costuming for Novak, actress hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) may or may not be the dreamed-of, ideal self of abject Diane Selwyn (also Watts), gutted by her breakup with Camilla (Laura Elena Harring). Which brings us back to insane memory: I will return to Lynch’s incomparable work, for easily my thirtieth viewing, when it screens on April 18. Will it unfold exactly as I remembered it, exactly as I want it to? Or will it once again remake me?

Melissa Anderson

“The Vertigo Effect” plays at BAMcinématek April 16–30.

Alain Cavalier, Le Paradis, 2014, color, sound, 70 minutes.


ALAIN CAVALIER’S LE PARADIS, making its US premiere Tuesday, April 14 at the second edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real festival, begins with an almost unbearably moving overture. The first images are of a brown, fleecy peacock chick, sticking close to the shadow of its mother. After a cut, the little bird is seen inside a cardboard box, swaddled in what appears to be bandages. Finally, it lies lifeless at the base of a spindly tree—“In the fresh blue watercress,” intones the director, an invisible presence throughout by way of voice-over and his first-person singular perspective, here quoting Rimbaud’s “Le dormeur du val” (The Sleeper in the Valley). After a suggestive shot of a black cat trundling up a stairwell, the camera returns to the peacock’s grave and finds it empty. Cavalier, reaching into the frame from behind the camera, marks the spot with a piece of flint, and has a young man—a grandson of the eighty-three-year old director, perhaps?—fasten the rude monument in place with nails. Through all of this, it is green summer; when Cavalier returns in winter, the trees are gone, but, clearing snow from one of the stumps, he discovers the monument intact. “Saved!” the director cries.

Cavalier completed his first feature in 1962; if he is familiar to American audiences at all, it is likely for this film, Le combat dans l’île, which enjoyed a limited rerelease in 2009, or perhaps for Thérèse, his austere 1986 biopic of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Since Le rencontre (1996), Cavalier has been working in the mode of film diary, and though the films he has subsequently produced in this vein—Vies (2000), Le filmeur (2005), and Irène (2009)—as well as his recent collaborations with the actor Vincent Lindon, in which he is also playing himself, have been hailed in his native France, they have scarcely been heard of in these United States.

Le Paradis, as its opening may suggest, finds Cavalier directly concerned with death, as he was concerned with aging and infirmity in Le filmeur. His proximity to death, however, brings him closer to youth here—not only in terms of his “co-stars,” playmates who with one noteworthy exception are of tender age, but to his own boyhood. “At the age of seven,” his voice-over intones, “they stick you in a boarding school, to learn Latin, to read the gospels. Then you learn Greek, to read Homer’s Odyssey. Then they let you go with your head stuffed full of crazy, crazy images.”

Now, seventy-five years later, the crazy, crazy images through which Cavalier first learned to understand the world continue to knock about in his head. The greater part of his sixty-seven-minute home movie finds him “reenacting” these foundational myths—Odysseus’s journey, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the myth of Job, the crucifixion and rebirth of Jesus—with the humblest of household materials. Windup toys—a tin robot and a plastic goose—become the hero of the Odyssey and the Prodigal Son; a ceramic owl plays Athena; a wooden knob on the “stern” of a hollowed fruit becomes Charon and his boat. If I am not mistaken, I believe Christ is played by a reflective lawn ornament of some sort. Each of these little scenarios is staged with the resourcefulness common to a lonely child left to his own devices. What Cavalier is interested in is expressing the eternal by way of the trivial—or rather in illustrating how they are one in the same. In a 1960s film by Jean-Luc Godard, to whose late work Cavalier’s own has often been compared, the universe was located in a coffee cup; in Le Paradis, you can find it in a junk drawer.

Like Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014), Le Paradis is a home movie—the great majority of it seems to have been shot on Cavalier’s own property, and he locates the Eden referred to in the title in his own backyard. But where Godard’s film is typically gnomic, Cavalier’s is sweetly pellucid. His language, though delivered in a conspiratorial hush, is plain, his points of reference the lingua franca of Western culture. The usual dismissal that greets work made in the amateur mode—“My kid could do that”—would be off-target here, as always, though one doubts Cavalier would take it as an insult.

Nick Pinkerton

Alain Cavalier’s Le Paradis plays Tuesday, April 14 at 7 PM at the Francesca Beale Theater as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series “Art of the Real.”

Simons Says

04.09.15

Frédéric Tcheng, Dior and I, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Raf Simons.


FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG has been affiliated with two of the more high-profile fashion documentaries of the past decade, both portraits of exceptionally outsize personalities in a profession rife with them. He served as coeditor of Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), a hagiographic chronicle of the final year of the Italian couturier’s reign, and codirected Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2012), a charming bauble on the peerless fashion editor and epigrammatist. For Dior and I, his first nonfiction project as sole creator, Tcheng focuses on a far less outlandish figure in haute couture: Raf Simons, the Belgian designer who was appointed head of the venerable Paris-based house of the title in 2012 and whose most outré behavior would seem to include downing too many cans of Coke Zero and wearing knee-length white shorts with black socks and black shoes in the atelier.

Tcheng includes no mention of the scandal that led to Simons’s anointment, namely the anti-Semitic barroom ravings of John Galliano, who oversaw Dior from 1996 to 2011. But he does structure his film around a dramatic crisis—the highly compressed eight weeks that Simons has to present his first haute-couture collection—whose outcome is a foregone conclusion: deferential chitchat with Anna Wintour, cheers, smiles, tears, backstage photos with Marion Cotillard. Yet Tcheng animates this countdown to inevitable triumph, too often the organizing principle of designer docs, by giving ample time to those who have frequently been overlooked in the genre: the white-smocked men and (mostly) women who cut, sew, and alter, unflagging artisans who can be found hand stitching thousands of bugles onto a gown at 3 AM.

Of these behind-the-scenes craftspeople, two—both middle-aged women—especially stand out: the premières Florence Chehet, adored by Simon’s chief adjutant, Pieter Mulier, for her unwavering cheerfulness, and Monique Bailly, who assuages her deadline anxiety with a container of Haribo Gummi candies. Their contrasting personalities point to a larger schism in high fashion, in which meeting the needs of private clients can sometimes conflict with those of the collection. (Another split, that between public and private life, is the central theme of Christian Dior and I, the New Look designer’s 1956 memoir, passages of which are read throughout the film.) Tcheng illustrates these clashing priorities with footage of Simons’s mildly indignant exchange, played out behind a halfway-closed door, with Catherine Rivière, the imposing directrice of Dior Haute Couture, who argues that Chehet had to be spared for a few crucial days to fit a customer in New York willing to spend 350,000 euros on bespoke garments. To Rivière’s assertion that one can’t say no to clients, Simons sniffs, “Well, you also can’t say no to me.”

His employees certainly never do, even—or especially—when they can’t understand him: Simons is fluent neither in French nor in the particular decorum of this rarefied world. (Prior to his appointment at Dior, Simons was the creative director for Jil Sander.) “In haute couture, we say Monsieur,” a veteran seamstress gently points out to her new boss, who isn’t especially keen on the honorific, during his meet-and-greet with the staff. Though the film is unquestionably a flattering portrait of Simons, it is also more broadly, and more fruitfully, a testament to a tradition and to those who have upheld it for decades—and who have as equal a claim on the first-person pronoun in the film’s title as Monsieur does.

Melissa Anderson

Dior and I opens April 10 in New York and Toronto and will expand to other cities on April 17.