I think I have to throw up before being able to discuss Stanley Donen’s beloved classic Funny Face (1957) which is a film of excessive romanticism, too cute creatures and musical numbers that will make the dearest friend of escapist entertainment shield his eyes from horror. It’s a pink box, decorated with frilled bows, which once opened reveals a world so fluffy that it can’t be taken seriously. One just can’t believe in it — even as a staged dream. Everything is just too lovely and sweet. Now, after saying what had to be said, I can begin another painful yet rewarding journey into the core of (a) musical.
Many consider Funny Face as the one and only fashion film. A film which is like a cinematic festival of fashion. In addition, people seem to worship Funny Face as the film which determined Audrey Hepburn as the fashion icon of her generation. It is as if the film celebrated Hepburn’s fashion stardom. However, it wasn’t merely the clothes which people fell in love with. For many contemporary critics thought that Hepburn was just too cute. She does, in fact, bring romantic depth to the film with her adorable charm which has probably been one of the major factors in making Funny Face such an enduring classic.
Already the innovative opening credits of fashion and design prove that Funny Face is a modern picture. Its imaginative use of montage, still shots, split screens and negative frames are all part of the legacy it left. The details become more and more important for the entirety and, towards the end, the decoration almost explodes out of the screen. In other words, it becomes excessive and banal. But in the first half of the film, the visual decoration works extremely well.
Through the use of romantic aesthetics, Donen highlights the mood of a fantasy-like universe. The colour scale is wide and variable from the brightest shades to elusive gloomy blur. Moreover, the fashion office, the Eiffel tower and the Champs-Élysées are put against the old book store, the Parisian coffeehouse and the backyard of a church in which wild nature blossoms freely.
Not surprisingly, all these aesthetic choices have a thematic connection. The modern cinematography, distinctive mise-en-scène and imaginative dance numbers reflect the themes of love and passion, yearn and loneliness. The precise composition of one scene in particular is exceptionally memorable. I am referring to the scene in which Jo (Hepburn) and Dick, played by Fred Astaire, are talking about empathy. As the girl explains the term to Dick, it seems that they position each other on “the same level”.
Another common topic, which is often discussed regarding Funny Face, beside its luminous presentation of fashion, is its chauvinistic aspect. For it is a story about an intelligent young woman, who doesn’t appreciate the fashion industry, but when put to her place she begins to love the occupation of a model. To my mind, however, the film should not be seen as sexist. In fact, the matador dance number, which follows the scene at the coffeehouse, is a grotesque caricature of entrenched conventions — the man entices the woman to him and finally hunts her down with a bayonet.
Already in the coffeehouse Jo and Dick were discussing how a woman can ask a man to dance with her just as well. But to characterize Funny Face as a feminist film would be ridiculous in the means of exaggeration but Donen was, in many things, an American pioneer who took a stand for current issues. The significance of the scenes, in which romantic conventions are questioned and made fun of, is purely in the zeitgeist of Funny Face. It’s not feminism but a tone of the postwar transition to another era. The transformation from an intellectual to a fashion girl is, of course, silly and artificial but it can also be seen as a metamorphosis, made possible by love, from an unhappy loner to a joyful woman surrounded and loved by the world.
The satire of fashion, advertising and marketing works very well in the beginning of the film. The film starts with a number in which the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine sings how all women around the world must wear pink but still sticks to a grey suit herself. Later on the group of fashion people occupy a charming book store and leave it ravaged. After Jo the salesgirl gets an invitation to the fashion office, the designers and reporters literally tear some of her clothes of like wild beasts.
However, the transition to the Paris sequence, in which Jo meets a French existentialist philosopher who can’t resist female beauty, equals the degradation of both the satirical and the visual aspect. The excessive decoration begins to lose its effect. The description of Parisian existentialist coffeehouses is, of course, interesting when it comes to cultural history, but it seems to me that Donen nor anyone else of the film crew knew nothing about that particular subculture of France. Of course, the description is intentionally humorous but it also lacks severely on content.
Nonetheless, the satirical nature of Funny Face wonderfully culminates in the Paris sequence but in a gag which is aimed at the fashion world: the editor-in-chief proclaims the discreet charm and distinct presence of the new girl while chaotic disorder is heard behind the curtain. At the moment when “ladies and gentlemen I give you” is pronounced, the facade collapses and the destructive farce which hides behind the cloak of the fashion industry is revealed in all its glory.
Although the film is at times boldly ironic, the mockery hit against the fashion world is purely gentle and warm. Funny Face is never cynic and, therefore, the satire isn’t detrimental to the romance of the story. On one level, this contrast of romance and satire emerges as the counterpoint of wildness and restraint. The women tear the clothes of the protagonist. The untamed nature, behind the church, blooms as an expression of Jo and Dick’s love. Not to mention the picturesque facade of the fashion world and the faked photographs of unauthentic love.
Dick is, in fact, a character who only meets empty-headed models due to which he instantly falls in love with a smart girl. The reason for this is the fact that they are both lonely. They are trapped in their private hells of art — literature and photography — in which they can really talk to no one. The early discussion of “empathicalism” is put in practice on the level of the story as, in the end, Dick and Jo are both able to position each other on the same level. To feel what the other does, and even to fall in love. Silly? Perhaps but at least the pseudo-philosophical theme presented in the beginning wasn’t left unused and totally vacant.
There are a few scenes which highlight the nature of the two characters. The musical number How Long Has This Been Goin’ On where Jo mourns on her solitude and the scene in the narrow darkroom, in which Dick is developing close-ups of Jo’s face, form a fusion-like extreme close-up of loneliness and new love. Love which works as a kiss of life for both of them. The darkroom is the cinema. Oh, to fall in love in the drama of light. In this sense, the entire movie is built on faked photographs of unauthentic love. It’s not just the photos Dick takes but everything we observe on the screen is staged. We, as viewers, always tend to fall in love with fakery when sitting in the darkroom.
In the subsequent montage of photo shooting, reason and emotion, authenticity and presentation merge in an intriguing fashion. This vision climaxes later on in a romantic close-up of Jo’s tearful eyes while she is wearing a fake wedding dress. Now presentation can’t anymore be separated from true, authentic, painful reality. It is an extremely beautiful image and a lovely moment. The dreamlike impression of transient joy and the purifying but withering power of grief has been captured almost perfectly, which can save Funny Face from sinking into oblivion of light-hearted silliness.