If pure cinema is an intense engagement -- like a loaded dialogue between precarious friends, perhaps -- then "Mademoiselle C" is really just hanging out, shooting the shit with longtime buddies you know you can’t alienate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, especially if you are on the West coast; it’s just not very challenging.
Fabien Constant has crafted a free-flowing portrait of the much-adored former editor of French Vogue magazine, Carine Roitfeld. Following her as she works to establish herself in New York, debuting her own magazine, CR, Constant takes us through the daily grind of an ambitious fashionista -- the shoots, the strategy meetings, the glamorous events, and the rubbing elbows with other A-listers. This project truly is designed for the initiated, for those in love with the glitz of the fashion world. She drops us right in, and hopes that we accept the appearance of various celebrities (fashion or otherwise) as narrative thrills along the way.
The film really is a tribute to an ebullient woman who everyone seems to love. Roitfeld is warm, humorous, determined, and endlessly spirited as she is shown here. What’s not to like? Because of the context we don’t expect her to be intellectually profound or the like. Of course, she has business smarts and social adeptness to spare (she can kick it with Kanye West and manage models, not necessarily the most mild-mannered bunch). What the film demonstrates with ease is Roitfeld’s better-than-ordinary but not quite extraordinary charisma and energy.
What it could benefit from is a clearer image of her genius as well as her faults (the extremities that really make persons/personas compelling to watch). If you are already a fan, you needn’t be convinced of her brilliance. Then, this is really like watching a VH1 special of a favorite musician. But, from the perspective of the uninitiated, testimonies and declarations of brilliance get one excited but don’t deliver one all the way to being convinced or enlightened. We see her on set, and she is confident and gets results. However, these are snappy scenes that show more that she is a fun-loving woman than that she has wildly original ideas or strategies.
That said, part of the film’s pleasure comes from glimpses of the shoots, collaborations of which it is hard to determine who is the innovator, organizer, etc. For example, on a ranch in South Florida we see her and photographer Bruce Weber costuming and directing women, young girls, and an untimely urinating infant in rather unusual ways. Of course, it is taken for granted that fashion photography is the realm of the unusual, and Roitfeld is known for black leather and sexual boldness.
So, then, perhaps one of the film’s minor surprises is that a planning discussion for the magazine’s debut issue leads to the decision to feature a baby as part of the cover art. It’s not all that surprising, however, considering Roitfeld’s new status as a grandma (the baby carriage becomes a sort of prop and she wonders out loud if she can push it in heels). In a small way, it’s satisfying to see the humble, family and friend-oriented side of a high profile sex symbol and fashion goddess. Industry quips and arguably obsessive style considerations are never far away, but we do see her private self.
As far as her faults/weaknesses or any real conflict, there are only hints. She makes a few offhand comments that suggest faltering confidence, but this seems more like a typical human reaction in a fiercely competitive world than indication of a serious psychological struggle (if there is one, Constant chooses to overlook it). There is also very little obstructing Roitfeld’s ascendency. There is mention of naysayers, industry insiders who resent her new endeavor, as well as the pressure for her debut issue to be strong enough to withstand the critics waiting to draw blood. However, this is never developed into a bona fide conflict.
Perhaps this lack makes the film a fine antidote. In our cultural condition, in which the TV channels are flooded with antagonism-as-entertainment in the form of reality shows in which fisticuffs and backstabbing are the norm and the internet is overrun with tabloid-style celebrity gossip, it might be nice to take in a fashion portrait that is primarily celebratory, nearly devoid of hissy fits, hate-mongering, and haughty jabs.