Paris-based Italian director Gianluca Matarrese took a deep dive into the world of fashion for his latest documentary feature, “Fashion Babylon,” which world premieres on Saturday at CPH:DOX film festival in Copenhagen. Ahead of the premiere, he spoke to Variety about the film and upcoming projects.
The idea for “Fashion Babylon” came to Matarrese after he met American musician and artist Casey Spooner in a bar in the Marais district of Paris, where the director lives. “He’s quite an extraordinary character, and he knows everyone,” Matarrese says. “He opened up the gates so I could enter this incredible world.”
For Matarrese, the fashion world is like a royal court, ruled by its king, Jean Paul Gaultier, and queen, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who is the one “making the rules,” he says. Matarrese compares this society to that depicted in Elle Fanning series “The Great,” about Russia’s Catherine the Great. Around the monarchs, flutter courtiers like Spooner and the two other subjects of the film, Michelle Elie and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Violet Chachki.
The film follows these three flamboyant characters as they attend the designer shows during the fashion weeks in Paris and Milan, where they are treated as minor celebrities. Where they are seated in the shows indicates their importance, with a place on the front row much desired. Matarrese is not there to mock the inhabitants of this kingdom, and he had to “gain the trust” of the insiders in order to have access to it, he says. He quotes French director Agnès Varda: “You must love what you film.”
He says of his relationship with Spooner, Elie and Chachki: “I don’t want to disappoint them, because they give you something with their generosity and you want to do something meaningful with it.”
He adds: “They are very smart people and have an irony toward themselves and a distance. That elevates them.” They don’t filter their emotions in the film. “They have no shame to show their fragilities.”
One thing Matarrese “wanted to explore with this film is the universal desire to be loved,” he says. The fashion world, in which the streets outside the shows, and the parties alongside them are as much a stage as the runway, can be cruel at times. “I’ve seen people treated really badly.” He quotes a line in the film from Elie: “One season you are in, one season you are out. That’s fashion. You really are a disposable accessory.”
Stories where characters rise and fall are what Matarrese likes, he says, especially those with an element of tragedy. At one point in the film, Spooner reflects on the need “to play the part” of the fun-loving exhibitionist, but, he adds, “Really, I’m tired, I’m rundown, I’m broke, and I’m lonely … And that’s okay.”
The film ends with a whiff of revolution in the air, as people tire of disposable fashion, and the way the pomp of the parties and shows have become more important than the creativity of the designers. The final scenes center on Gaulter’s farewell couture show. “People were dancing on a volcano. This carnival that I witnessed, I don’t see it anymore,” Matarrese says. “I wanted to talk about this end of an era.”
The courtly theme is reinforced by original music composed by Cantautoma, who also did the soundtrack for the director’s recent films “Steady Job” and “The Last Chapter.” “He is an amazing musician, very creative, and the music in ‘Fashion Babylon’ reflects the path of the narrative, always following the direction of court society; he worked on Baroque ancient music, the ‘Magnificat’ of Domenico Cimarosa. Starting with the splendor of the Baroque, throughout the evolution of the film we get into the real essence behind the pompous scenographic symphonia, and the essence is distorted, nightmarish, darker… Like the contradictory feelings I have about the fashion world I’m trying to portray.”
Matarrese, a former actor, looks like a Versailles courtier himself, with long wavy locks, and he gesticulates with dramatic flourishes. He describes himself as a “real crazy person,” working on several projects at the same time. He will soon have three films on the festival circuit. In September, he won the Queer Lion at Venice with “The Last Chapter,” and the film continues to tour major international festivals, joined now by “Fashion Babylon.” “A Steady Job” will world premiere next month at Visions du Réel.
He is shooting three films now. One is about an elite high-school in Paris, which has an emphasis on oratory skills. Another film is being shot with former students – now professional actors – of Jacques Lecoq theater school, which he himself attended. In the film, we will see the actors, who have established a theater company called Nar6, as they prepare an adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel “L’Assommoir.” Scenes from the performance will be mixed with scenes from the actors’ own lives, and sometimes it is hard to know which is which. Nar6 founder Anne Barbot directed the theater production, and also acts in it alongside Benoît Dallongeville. The third film, co-directed with Guillaume Thomas, follows superstar drag queen Miss Fame as she attends therapy sessions with Betony Vernon. He is also writing two other films.
The director is often a character in his own films, such as in “Everything Must Go,” which is about a crisis in his family’s shoe store business in Italy. It sees him leaving Paris, where he was a director of reality TV shows, and returning home to document his family’s own drama. In “The Last Chapter,” he appears as the last sex slave of a male dominatrix, who is about to retire.
In some films, such as “A Steady Job” and “Fashion Babylon,” he doesn’t appear in the films, but they still are delivered from the heart. “There are different levels of intimacy but it doesn’t mean they are less personal,” he says.
During the shoot for “Fashion Babylon,” Matarrese amassed 400-500 hours of rushes, which he then crafted into a fast-faced 75 minute final cut, cutting out many of the minor characters.
For Matarrese, the line between fact and fiction can be fluid. “I use real material, and I treat it as if it was fictional,” he explains.
“I really like the border between fiction and reality, because my way of filming reality is that I like to write a lot, then you write while you are filming, having the guidelines of your writing, then you write with the editing, and you change all the story and the artists.
“Sometimes people think [my films] are fiction. They don’t know [the film] is a documentary, because, in a way, documentary doesn’t exist for me, in the end.”
“Fashion Babylon” was produced by Dominique Barneaud for Bellota Films with the participation of France Télévisions, and the support of CNC and Procirep-Angoa. The editor is Tess Gomet. World sales are handled by Limonero Films.