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Fashion victims
Creative Sensemaker

Fashion victims

Thursday 25 November 2021

Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci is an irresistible fusion of true crime, in-your-face couture and dynastic feuding


“The Gucci story is as dramatic as any of the films for which it has produced costumes,” writes Christopher Laverty in Fashion in Film (2016). “Even more than Chanel, Gucci had realized the strength in brand identity. It is not enough just to wear Gucci; you have to tell everyone you are.”  

So when Hannibal Lecter buys shoes for FBI agent Clarice Starling in Hannibal (2001), they are, of course, Gucci. The director of that sequel to The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was Ridley Scott; and now, 20 years later, he dedicates an entire movie to the legendary Florentine fashion house and, more specifically, to the dynastic feuding that proved both metaphorically and literally murderous.

Patrizia Reggiani is escorted into court by police officers during her trial for Maurizio Gucci’s murder

Based on Sara Gay Forden’s book of the same name, House of Gucci (general release, 26 November) has as its dramatic fulcrum the assassination in 1995 of Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), grandson of the brand’s founder, Guccio, by his furious ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). 

Maurizio and Patrizia’s romance and marriage had scandalised his family – especially his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) who regarded the haulier’s daughter as no more than a gold-digger posturing as a Latin Elizabeth Taylor. 

Added into the mix are Maurizio’s flailing cousin, Paolo (Jared Leto, unrecognisable in prosthetics), and his amiable Uncle Aldo (Al Pacino, still roaring contentedly after all these years). When his marriage to Patrizia heads south, one senses nervously that the union is very unlikely to dissolve in an amicable fashion – and so it proves (look out for Salma Hayek, terrific as Pina Auriemma, a professional psychic, who, bizarrely, is instrumental in arranging the hit).

Driver is as excellent as ever – entitled, geekish, artfully diffident. But the movie belongs completely to Gaga who holds nothing back in a daring performance that might have tumbled off the cliff of absurdity but, in practice, holds the whole story together with its megawatt power: think Gina Lollobrigida meets Cruella de Vil. Having missed out on the Best Actress Oscar for A Star is Born in 2019, she deserves a second run at the golden statuette for her portrayal of Patrizia.

It is often said that Scott’s films are losing the taut coherence that was once his trademark (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator), and that he has not made a film with directorial grip since Matt Damon was stranded on Mars in The Martian (2015). House of Gucci certainly sprawls unapologetically for more than two and half hours – but it does so compellingly, with a jackdawish appetite for contemporary culture and preoccupations that keeps the viewer engaged.

Most obviously, like Forden’s original book, the movie revels in the modern fixation with true crime, and the tropes, tricks and taboos of that spectacularly successful genre. Patrizia, who was released from prison in 2016 after serving 18 years, is emphatically a figure from the past. But Gaga’s version of her story speaks directly to the psychic landscape of 2021.

Scott also understands completely the formidable power of fashion, and the extent to which it communicates much more than voguish, ephemeral guidelines for clothing and accessories. As John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing (1972): “The happiness of being envied is glamour.” 

Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957)

This desire to be envied, of course, is a seriously dangerous force, and one which leads people to do bad and foolish things. In the era of Instagram – an age of visual bombardment, filters, and cyber-narcissism – that desire has never been stronger. 

As a veteran cineaste, Scott also knows better than most that fashion and film are tied together as tightly as one of Madonna’s classic Gaultier bustiers. House of Gucci draws greedily on a long tradition of movies about couture: from the primary-coloured fantasy of Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957); via Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1994); Coco Before Chanel (2009); and Personal Shopper (2016).

Amy Adams in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016)

It is no accident that Tom Ford, creative director of Gucci from 1994 to 2004, has gone on to direct two icily compelling films: A Single Man (2009) and Nocturnal Animals (2016). Like movies, fashion sells ideas: you can bet that, had he lived longer, Steve Jobs, who understood the need for technology to deliver aesthetic pleasure as much as efficiency, would have immersed himself somehow in film-making and the streaming revolution.

Was it inevitable that Maurizio and Patrizia’s marriage would end in murder? Perhaps not. But, in its sheer intensity, the fashion world is a pressure cooker that many do not survive. 

Alexander McQueen in the documentary McQueen (2018)

This tragic dimension to couture is beautifully rendered in the 2018 documentary, McQueen, and in Detmar Blow’s memoir of his late wife (who was Alexander McQueen’s muse) Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow (2010). Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) is also a magnificently unsettling journey into the strange borderlands between the design of beautiful clothes and the self-destruction of those that make them.

House of Gucci is too operatic, melodramatic and downright flashy to dwell too overtly upon this thread of mortality. All the same: in its own hyper-stylised way, it shows how often, at the end of the catwalk, there looms a tall figure in a ragged cowl, bearing a scythe.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

The Power of the Dog (selected cinemas, 26 November; Netflix, 1 December)

In the work of Jane Campion – notably, The Piano (1993) and her television drama series Top of the Lake (2013-17) – masculinity is both toxic and the object of the camera’s obsession. In The Power of the Dog – based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name – she portrays two ranchers in 1920s Montana; the spikily macho Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his solidly conformist brother, George (Jesse Plemons). Their lives are transformed by George’s bride, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The fissile chemistry between the four characters unleashes resentment, alcoholism and a repressed homoeroticism that is central to the plot. Cumberbatch is superb, seriously menacing and psychologically helpless by turns: it is remarkable to reflect that this is the same actor who so recently played the Pooterish businessman Greville Wynne in The Courier (see Creative Sensemaker, 29 July). The movie’s title, by the way, is drawn from the Psalms: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog” – a clue to the emotional depths which it plumbs, and which remain the principal object of Campion’s genius.

JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass (selected cinemas, 26 November; view on demand, 29 November)

It says a lot about contemporary culture that more people tend to know about the grassy knoll, the “magic bullet” and Operation Mongoose – all key elements in the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 – than know about the detail of his presidency. In this documentary, Oliver Stone returns to the terrain that he first staked out in JFK (1991), his superior dramatisation of the only trial yet brought in the case of the assassination – by New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) against the CIA-connected businessman, Clay Shaw. The new film is as stylish as one would expect, and, in its first half, walks the viewer through mostly familiar forensic and testimonial anomalies that undermine the official findings of the Warren Commission (the principal conclusion of which was that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone). Thereafter, Stone indulges the same speculations he explored in 1991: namely, that all this was closely related to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the loathing of the CIA for Kennedy, and the insistence of the “military-industrial complex” that there be a full-bore US intervention in Vietnam. Though I didn’t spot much that was wholly new, the film is still immensely watchable – and a reminder that, before the tawdry fare of QAnon, the anti-vaxxers and Pizzagate, conspiracy theories could be quite classy.

The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+, 25-27 November)

Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s original film about the final phase of the Fab Four, Let It Be (1970), has taken an undeserved critical mauling over the years, in spite of the fact that it won an Oscar. In any case: there were 56 hours of video footage and 150 hours of audio waiting to be turned into something more expansive and multi-layered; which is precisely what the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sir Peter Jackson, has now done in this extraordinary three-part documentary. Coinciding with a book edited by John Harris (see Creative Sensemaker, 14 October), Jackson’s account of the Twickenham Studios recording sessions in January 1969 and their aftermath presents a band painfully aware that their days are numbered – George Harrison: “Maybe we should have a divorce?” – but still deeply bonded by music, in-jokes, experience and something close to sibling love. The spectacle of their creativity, of classic songs such as ‘Get Back’ being composed before our very eyes, is mesmerising. So too is the surprising extent to which the Beatles, having scaled heights unknown to any band before or since, remained comparatively normal, even as they grew increasingly aware of the sense of an ending. Their famous rooftop concert in London on 30 January 1969 – the last time they played live together – was essentially the greatest pub rock gig in history, and their joy at its back-to-basics simplicity is palpable. “I hope we passed the audition,” Lennon asks at the end, knowing full well that the question has already been answered for centuries to come.


Read

The 1619 Project: A New American Origin Story – Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine (W H Allen) 

“Origin stories function, to a degree, as myths designed to create a shared sense of history and purpose,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones in the final chapter of this compelling book. This was the premise that inspired The New York Times to launch the original 1619 Project two years ago – reassessing American history on the basis that its true starting-point was not the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, but of the White Lion and its cargo of enslaved Africans in Virginia the year before. Predictably, the whole enterprise quickly became a front in Donald Trump’s culture wars and its central purpose – to think more deeply about the roots of America – was too often eclipsed by name-calling and “gotcha” attacks. The enduring value of the project, however, is manifest in the 18 essays (seven of them new), fictions, and poems collected in these pages. Those who take the project’s thesis – that American history cannot possibly be understood without reference to slavery and its legacy – as a mortal affront reveal only their ignorance and brittleness of spirit. Just as books such as Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland (see Creative Sensemaker, 28 January) are enriching our understanding of British history, so The 1619 Project is an indispensable addition to the way in which we apprehend America, its ancestral pain and the deep racial injustices that persist to this day. (It is also a natural companion volume to Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain; see Creative Sensemaker, 22 April.)

Harsh Times – Mario Vargas Llosa

Is it really 40 years since I read The War of the End of the World? Along with Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a handful of others, Mario Vargas Llosa personified the Latin American literary wave that engulfed the West in the 1980s. Now 85, the Peruvian author is a Nobel Prize winner, former presidential candidate and a hugely significant figure in the evolution of both modernist and post-modern literature. In Harsh Times, he explores the traumas of Guatemala between the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in which President Árbenz was deposed and the assassination three years later of his successor Carlos Castillo Armas. We watch as real-life figures such as US Secretary of State, John Dulles, and his brother, Allen, director of the CIA, systematically exaggerate the threat of communism in Guatemala to thwart Árbenz’s social reforms. Closely entangled with Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece The Feast of the Goat (2000) – a study of the Dominic dictator, Rafael Trujillo – Harsh Times deals in geo-political foul play but does so through the prism of its characters’ inner lives, vanities and foibles. A remarkable novel that – in its vivid description of lies, conspiracies, and corruption – feels all too contemporary. 

At a Distance: 100 Visionaries At Home in a Pandemic – edited by Spencer Bailey and Andrew Zuckerman (Apartamento Publishing)

Based on a podcast launched by the founders of the media company The Slowdown, this collection of reflections on life during the pandemic, and what lies beyond it, is a superior addition to the already-booming genre of Covid-related books. What distinguishes At a Distance from the pack is the scale, scope and radicalism of its contributors’ ideas. “The things we’re going to be looking for in an economy going forward are not what we’ve looked for in the past, which was basically speed,” says Bill McKibben. “We’re going to be looking for resilience, reliability, heartiness – a draft horse, not a racehorse.” Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, is good on the impact of the digital revolution upon behaviour and human interaction: “Technology is optimized for speed, but companies aren’t thinking about that speed as a core ingredient of what makes our society operate.” And Angela Glover Blackwell is thought-provoking on racial inequality: “Equity is the superior growth model for the nation. If we get the equity agenda right, we get so much else right.” If, looking forward to 2022, you are in the mood for some unabashed optimism and a call-to-action, this is definitely the book for you.


Listen

Actual Life 2 (February 2 – October 15 2021) – Fred again..

With Brian Eno as his mentor, Fred Gibson – AKA Fred again.. – struck lucky as an apprentice producer, and has gone on to work with a stellar line-up of artists: Stormzy, Ed Sheeran, Little Mix, Clean Bandit and George Ezra (remarkably, he played a part in 30 per cent of the Number One tracks of 2019). But, since the release of Actual Life (April 14 – December 17 2020) in April this year, he has been making his name as an artist in his own right; specifically, a musical diarist who creates remarkable collages in sound from samples, FaceTime conversations, and Instagram clips that record his daily feelings, ideas and creative impulses. As one listens to this rich, subtle and sometimes overwhelming album, it is remarkable to reflect that his main tools are simply a regular laptop, iPhone and iPad. Through often brilliant juxtaposition of words and music, Fred chronicles his grief over the death of a loved one, his recognition that he needs emotional help and his celebration of renewed intimacy. A diary you can dance to.

Infinite Bach – Johan Ullén, Johann Sebastian Bach, Christian Svarfvar, London Philharmonic Orchestra

One of the most common misconceptions about classical music is that it is set in aspic. In fact, many of the greatest composers have turned their talents to reinterpreting their predecessors: Schumann’s variations on the works of Beethoven, for instance, or the reimagining of Handel by Brahms. To this tradition, the Swedish composer Johan Ullén has added his four masterly reworkings of Bach’s four violin concertos – first performed in Stockholm in 2016 – which he and virtuoso violinist Christian Svarfar have now recorded at Abbey Road Studios. The resulting performance is astounding: a sonic encounter between 18th Century musical rigour and the power of modern pop, film music and minimalist composition. If you liked Max Richter’s 2014 reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, you’ll love Infinite Bach.

Home Alone 2 – D-Block Europe

Nothing to do with Macaulay Culkin, this new 23-track mixtape by Lewisham’s finest – Young Adz and Dirtbike LB – follows their original Home Alone release in 2019 and last year’s The Blue Print – Us Vs. Them, which reached number two in the UK albums chart. Always at home delivering classic trap, D-Block Europe have the clout to recruit collaborators of the quality of Offset (featured on ‘Chrome Hearts’), Tion Wayne (on ‘Be Polite’), AJ Tracey, Central Cee, M Huncho and Tiny Boost. As ever, DBE craft a sound that is both mellow and lyrically acute. Their eagerly-awaited tour begins in Birmingham on Tuesday.

…also: not musical, but still definitely worth listening to is Green Inc (BBC Sounds), a four-part series by satirist and commentator, Heydon Prowse, on the green rebranding of the oil and gas industry. Best-known for his Bafta-winning series, The Revolution Will be Televised, Prowse is fast becoming one of the essential observers of the ironies, hypocrisies and absurdities of our era, deploying the techniques of the prankster to make serious arguments. Follow his work: you won’t be disappointed.


Explore

The Valkyrie (English National Opera, 25 and 28 November, 1, 4, 7, and 10 December)

Hats off to the ENO’s chair, Harry Brünjes, and it chief executive, Stuart Murphy, for keeping the company afloat during the pandemic – no small feat – and to its artistic director, Annilese Miskimmon for boldly embarking upon a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle over the next five years, starting with its second and most accessible part. Richard Jones’s production is nicely minimalist and the principals are all strong. But it is Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde that makes this an operatic experience not to be missed – for old Wagner hands and novices alike.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy MGM, Luca Bruno/AP/Shutterstock, Getty Images, Salon Pictures/Misfits Entertainment, Netflix, Apple Corps Ltd, Tristram-Kenton/ENO