Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Funny Face

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Funny Face

When looking back on the 1950s with fifty-year hindsight, we tend to see it as the era of suburbanization, an old-fashioned, conservative time before the free spirit of the 60s kicked in. Needless to say, this was not how the postwar generation saw it. The first few minutes of Funny Face, admittedly an optimistic and generally innocent take on the pop culture of the time, reminds you that the 50s were also the high point of modernism. Bright colors burst from the screen, visual invention enfolds the wide frame, and as the movie swims in references to 50s bohemianism, intellectual currents, and fashion trends, however tamed down, we're reminded how far removed the 50s was from the 30s.


Funny Face takes as its frothy story a half-hearted Pygmalion effort to turn bookworm Jo Stockton into a supermodel. It's half-hearted because when you're starting with Audrey Hepburn, in any incarnation, you don't have very far to go. Fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) recognizes this before anyone else, though it of course takes him far too long to realize Jo has a crush on him. Even when that's settled, there are still further hurdles to overcome.

Prof. Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), Jo's guru and an exponent of "empathisism" (a ludicrous stab at postwar bohemian/intellectual philosophy), lays claim to Jo's attention, fostering ill will between her and Avery until she realizes Flostre wants to take empathy in a new, somewhat lustier, direction. Will she be reunited with Avery in time? Sadly, a goateed assassin (an exponent of the rival creed of apathetisism) bursts into Flostre's chamber with a machine gun and Flostre, hoping Jo will empathize with his death, pushes her into the hail of bullets. Both are killed and the film ends with a somber funeral at which Astaire mournfully dances a soft-shoe farewell tap dance on the coffin.

Just kidding. All's well that ends well, and no rewards for predicting whose arms Jo ends up in. The obvious point of all this is to revel in Astaire's still-got-it footwork and Hepburn's undying loveliness, but the story and the style contain their own charms. As a pastiche of 50s hip and cool cultures, and a demonstration of the cutting edge in cinematic spontaneity, Funny Face is fascinating. If its portrait of bohemians is wilfully facile there's something nonetheless hypnotic in Jo's introduction to Flostre. She enters a dim, red-soaked cafe, hearing a voice speaking in French. A pair of legs stands on a stage, cut off above the knees by a partial wall. Flostre crouches to meet Jo's gaze and he conveys a sense of Beat cool, however insincere the whole thing initially appears to be.

Much is made of the stylistic quantum leap cinema took in the sixties. Funny Face's opening sequence and subsequent montages remind us that there was as great a gap - if not greater - between Hollywood in the Golden Age (black-and-white, square-framed, more reliant on cinematography than editing to conjure a mood) and Hollywood of the high fifties - leaping off the screen, assembling itself into modernist frescoes with split screens, bursts of color, winking proto-Pop advertisements, and rapid cuts. Stanley Donen was very young at the time, 33 years old (he'd been 25 when breaking through with On the Town and not yet 30 when he collaborated with Gene Kelly on his masterpiece, Singin' in the Rain). This feels like a young man's film, the film of a man in touch with pop culture and the zeitgeist.

Astaire is willing, able and as much the pro as ever, lending a good deal of charm and taste to the proceedings. But Hepburn, despite her inferior song & dance skills, is front and center. Whether draped in glamorous fashion or clad in simple ponytail and black turtleneck (and who can deny she's just as, if not more, charming in the latter?), she holds the screen with a frothy, immensely satisfying grace that suits the picture like a hand in a glove. Funny Face suits its time perfectly and in doing so, it doesn't feel dated today but rather a blast from a past we'd almost forgotten.

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