The Devil Wears Prada (Frankel, 2006) — 10 Years Later

The title sequence of The Devil Wears Prada is so effortlessly composed that it comes across virtually as a dream. It’s morning in Manhattan and the legion of the city’s models rise. They dress in a beautiful catalog of lingerie, skirts and stilettos and open their cabinets full of luxury makeup and eyeliner. When they hail taxis with cutting precision, they clutch their designer purses in their other arms. All of this opening scene takes place to the sound of KT Tunstall’s 2005 pop hit, “Suddenly I See,” which is perhaps a little too on the mark. We hear lyrics like, “She’s a beautiful girl / and everything around her is a silver pool of light,” and “Suddenly I see / This is what I want to be,” and we can’t help but wonder if The Devil Wears Prada will be simply 109 minutes of glorifying the fashion industry.

Unfortunately, ten years after its release and a childhood spent with only positive things to say about the film, I’ve soured on The Devil Wears Prada. And perhaps it was inevitable. Like the industry it spoofs, the film is full of surface, sensual pleasures. Listen half attentively, glance superficially, and it is easy to float on, enjoying the peppy music, skinny models, and clever dialogue. In addition to “Suddenly I See,” we do experience the hum of working to Moby’s “Beautiful” and gaze at the spectacular landmarks of Paris to U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” But this is an appetizer without the main course.

My reaction is in part a product of my minimal interest in the fashion industry, lack of particular affection for Meryl Streep or Anne Hathaway, and inability to generate much sympathy for these characters. I have come to realize that although The Devil Wears Prada is never anything but aesthetically pleasing, it’s too beautiful a film. In the midst of office squabbles and runway shows, it reveals itself as a Rorschach test for the materialism at the core of American life and society. Perhaps, like me, watching The Devil Wears Prada after the financial crisis will leave you with the urge to jack up taxes on the rich and vote for Bernie Sanders.

devil wears pradaAn adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel, the film pits a young, Northeastern grad, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) against a domineering fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Despite no knowledge of the industry and an awkward interview, Andy gets a job as a second assistant. First assistant and resident mean girl Emily (Emily Blunt) shows her the ropes. Soon, Andy is weighed down by Miranda’s coats, Starbucks runs and other petty tasks. At one point, Miranda threatens to fire Andy unless she gets her daughters the unpublished manuscripts of the last Harry Potter book. Andy manages to pull this off with the timely assistance of a writer, Christian Thompson, who quickly seduces her.

At home, Andy’s life is a mess. Her boyfriend, Nate, breaks up with her and she blows off her longtime friends. When her father visits her, she gets distracted by a distressed phone call from Miranda, stranded by a hurricane in Florida. Her closest connection becomes the magazine’s art director, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who trades Andy’s plain, boring clothes for designer wear. Gaining the trust of Miranda, Andy eventually surpasses Emily. As a reward for her talents, Andy earns a trip to Fashion Week in Paris, where she ultimately grows disillusioned with the backstabbing of her job. In the film’s triumphant moment, she then ditches Miranda and throws her phone in a fountain.

One problem of The Devil Wears Prada is that the film doesn’t work as a comedy or a satire. There are amusing jokes of the harmless, rom-com variety, but director David Frankel is too enticed by the fashion world to skewer it for laughs. In reality, Andy is a convert to the beauty standards and values of the fashion industry; she loses weight and seems to abandon her dreams of becoming a journalist at least until the end, where she interviews for a reporter job. When Andy stuns her co-workers by arriving in dazzling new clothes, it seems to suggest you can become a new person by wearing a new outfit. That’s a troubling message of vanity.

And what of the message The Devils Wears Prada sends to young girls? Almost everyone in the film, male or female, is good-looking, attractive and well-off. The movie fat shames by having Andy mocked for being a size six on the way to being a size four. Emily, an anorexic, proudly boasts that she hasn’t eaten anything all day. That’s a dangerous line to promote to the many women and girls who feel bad about their weight and physical appearance. Another false ring of the movie is that Andy is forced to change her looks because she dons flannel sweaters and flat shoes. But who cares! Anne Hathaway appeared on People’s 50 Most Beautiful People list in 2006 and looks pretty good wearing anything. Therefore, a choice between Hathaway’s Andy and the alluring fashion world is really no choice at all.

It is interesting, however, to compare the world The Devil Wears Prada shows in the mid 2000s to the present day. I wonder how the rise of social media and the deterioration of print publishing might have added complications to the plot. How have smartphones changed the office world environment? Although the young professionals of the film can’t be that well-off, there is little discussion in the film of expenses, costs and salaries. The economic devastation about to be unleashed by Wall Street, situated just a few miles away, would give even the most narcissistic models pause to think of their economic security. Would The Devil Wears Prada, set in 2010, strike a different tone?

Indeed, in the last decade, it’s become harder and harder to watch any film that panders to the wealthy and powerful. Why doesn’t anyone in the movie feel grateful or humble to receive the good fortune of privilege, to bask in celebrity each day? For all the women who dream of working in the fashion industry, The Devils Wears Prada may be enticing. But the film is vapid and empty beneath its Louis Vuitton coats. The rest of us might as well stick to wearing rubber Crocs and whichever t-shirts we can find. That style is easier, less expensive and more authentic. Wear it well.


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My Best Picture Choice: Room

Editor’s Note: This essay contains plot spoilers for Room and Where The Wild Things Are.

In one of the very first scenes of Room, Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay, moves around Room touching almost every object he can find. “Morning lamp, morning rug, morning wardrobe,” he says. These household furnishings are alive to Jack; in fact, they are the only world he has ever known. Jack then looks under his bed and turns to Eggsnake, a creation built out of hundreds of leftover eggshells, and he tells the toy, “Morning Eggshell. It’s my birthday. I’m five.” Continue reading “My Best Picture Choice: Room”

My Best Picture Choice: Mad Max: Fury Road

I do not subscribe to the mentality that there is only one acceptable Best Picture winner, and if that film does not win, the Academy made a huge mistake. First of all, even if your least favorite pick wins, the Academy has probably made worse mistakes in the past. Second of all, every year there are multiple nominees for Best Picture which are very good films, and any one of those films would be a deserving, worthwhile choice for the highest honor from the Academy. Continue reading “My Best Picture Choice: Mad Max: Fury Road”

My Best Picture Choice: Spotlight

 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the Oscars this week. With the exception of the omission of Todd Haynes’s Carol (a film I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about), there were no big surprises in the Best Picture category. Continue reading “My Best Picture Choice: Spotlight”

A GLBTQ Movie Season

I don’t feel clinically qualified to label it a full-blown sexual panic, but the nomination of Brokeback Mountain for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture ten years ago appeared to cause some people I knew genuine distress. Continue reading “A GLBTQ Movie Season”

“Feel Better” Movies — Evan Cogswell’s List

When Ken asked me to participate in compiling five “Feel Better” movies, I initially planned to balance my selection among different types of films, but then I realized the films that really help me feel better in dark times are offbeat comedies and tragic cautionary tales. In the interest of some diversity I did select four comedies that are all quite different (satire, screwball, comedy-drama, and something that defies description), which left me a final space for a tragic cautionary tale that I find strangely uplifting. Continue reading ““Feel Better” Movies — Evan Cogswell’s List”

Feel “Better” Movies — What to Watch When the News is Bleak

The news has not been good this week.

I’d contextualize that statement, but I realized that in a month or two or six, today’s senseless horrors will probably have given way to others and that such a statement may be equally apt, even if it has a different antecedent.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” is a cynical but seemingly indisputable description of how media (mainstream and social) gets our attention. The psychological effects of being constantly asked to focus on the world’s problems is paradoxically well documented and perhaps only peripherally understood. (I recommend The Culture of Fear for a better articulation of those costs than I can give here.)

I wanted to write a post about films I turn to when I just can’t take the bad news any more, when I’m fed up with human nature, or when my capacity to respond productively to the “real” world is exahausted. Here’s the thing, though: I dislike the term “feel good” as a label for grand art. For me, it connotes something chippy, chirpy, maybe even facile. The films that help me most in such times are seldom cheerful, never superficial. They do, however, remind me that while we as a race are capable of great evil, a catalog of our worst atrocities is not a sufficient description of who we are.

Here are five films that make me feel better when I’m feeling bad about…everything else. Continue reading “Feel “Better” Movies — What to Watch When the News is Bleak”

“How Can I Get Screeners?”

“How can I get screeners?”

I get asked that question a lot. And given that in the great chain of important film critics descending from Ebert on high, I rank pretty low, I can only imagine how frequently other critics get hit up for tips about how to get free movies. Either that or furtive requests that maybe, you know, when you’re  done with it….? Continue reading ““How Can I Get Screeners?””

The Trial (Welles, 1962)

The unsolvable riddles of human existence are the primary preoccupation of Orson Welles’s films, the first of which is Citizen Kane (in which a human life is depicted as, to quote Borges, a “centreless labyrinth”) and the last of which is F for Fake (in which art itself becomes yet another “centreless labyrinth”). How fitting then that Welles adapted Kafka’s The Trial, an obtuse and peculiar narrative about man, society, and the law. As Welles disembodied voice intones during the film’s prologue, The Trial follows the logic of the nightmare; it begins and ends in the abyss.

Welles was incapable of making a film that did not somehow yield to his own distinctive vision (even his hackwork displays his unique flair), but in the broad outline, The Trial adheres to that of Kafka’s novel: protagonist Josef K. (portrayed in the film by Anthony Perkins) awakes to find that he has been arrested, but the details of the charge are withheld from him. The remainder of the story follows his misadventures as he navigates a society that seems designed to thwart his every move as he vainly attempts to establish his innocence.

A parable, taken from one of the novel’s later chapters, serves as the film’s preface. The parable tells of a man seeking admittance to the Law. He stands before the guarded gate of the Law, asking for entry. The entry is refused to him, and, so, intimidated by the guard, he waits. He pleads with the guard, even attempting to bribe his way in, but the guard never relents. After having spent the entirety of his life waiting, the seeker asks the guard why no other individuals have come to the door of the Law. The guard informs him that the door was made only for the seeker and that the seeker alone could have entered it. The guard then shuts the door.

The parable, like the film itself, defies any solution. Like a Lewis Carroll riddle disguised as a Bible passage, it tantalizingly dangles points of interpretive entry only to reveal all entry points as dead ends. Late in the film, the ostensible villain of the film, the law advocate Albert Hastler (played with relish by Welles himself) wields the parable as a weapon against Josef K., demanding Josef’s ultimate subservience and slavery to the system that desires to crush him. Josef K. rejects the parable and, by extension, the world that follows its illogic, but he cannot transcend the nightmare. He, too, is a product of the world.

Welles The TrialThis world is as spatially confused as it is relationally and ideologically confused. Scenes and segments jump from one to the other with disorienting effect, often revealing that two locations other scenes indicated were far apart are actually parts of the same space. By the end of the film, it appears that every location—from the opera house to the hearing room to the cathedral—is united, just different facets of the same oppressive realm, a labyrinth with no exit. (Welles achieved this effect by filming the majority of The Trial in an abandoned train station, so that each of these locations really were different chambers in the same building.)

Welles’s films are about places as much as they are about people, and therefore pay special attention to architecture. Nowhere is this attention more profoundly and lovingly displayed than in Welles’ monologue about Chartres in F for Fake, but it’s present as early as Citizen Kane, where every setting is a mirror image of the people inhabiting that space.

This attention to setting and its effects made Welles especially well-suited to film noir pieces, where his expressionism could run wild. The different environments of The Lady from Shanghai (aquariums, court rooms, Chinese theaters, funhouses) transform a convoluted, thin story into one of the most vivid noir features. Touch of Evil’s iconic opening shot–an extended single take in which the camera floats over rooftops and down city streets–turns its decaying border town into the film’s star. Welles’ chiaroscuro lighting has the effect of bleeding characters into these spaces, as occurs in the clocktower finale of The Stranger.

Anthony Perkins in The TrialBoth stylistically and narratively, The Trial follows after Welles’ noir pictures. Jean Collet pointed out the special relationship that exists between The Trial and the film that preceded it in Welles’ filmography, Touch of Evil, “a meditation on the abuses of the police state.” But the injustices of The Trial are more expansive, and the villains are not just authority figures, but an entire society that regards Josef K. with contempt, that is all too willing to condemn him for an unknown crime.

In this, the specter of the Holocaust raises its head and permeates the film. Welles does not have to twist the narrative to reflect the injustices of World War II. He does not have to: The Trial’s rooms and landscapes are enough to suggest postwar Europe, where crumbling buildings serves a reminders of a passed European golden age that was ravaged by war, and new, imposing modernist structures rise amongst the ruins.

Welles further skewers the rise of the corporation, which is depicted in The Trial as being every bit as dehumanizing as the government. Welles’ vivid depictions of soulless drone workers slaving away paved the way for films like Brazil and The Double, but where those films relied on claustrophobic spaces to suggest oppression, Welles makes enormous spaces unbearable. Josef K.’s arrival at work ranks among the film’s most memorable sequences; he passes hundreds of people sitting at hundreds of desks all typing on hundreds of typewriters, the deafening roar of typewriter keys filling the entirety of the cavernous space. The world of The Trial is always either big enough or small enough that Josef K. can be lost in it.

Josef K.’s relationships in the film–if they can be called that, given that nearly everyone in the film seems to lack the ability or desire to communicate–consist mostly of aborted encounters with women. The lure of eroticism snakes throughout the film, tying the archetype of the femme fatale to the promises of the society that surrounds it: death cloaked in false promises.

Kafka’s Josef K. meets his inevitable end passively, at the end of a knife blade. Welles embellishes upon Kafka’s novel to allow Josef K. a final futile gesture, an act of defiance against the world around him. Left in a rubble pit with a some dynamite, Josef K. laughs wildly as he lifts the dynamite to hurl it at his assailants. He does not throw it in time and is dissolved in the blast.

Even so, Josef K.’s death is not the death of a heroic martyr. The film allows for the possibility that Josef K. is not altogether innocent. Without the nature of the charge having been made clear, how could his guilt ever be truly dismissed? Certainly, Josef K. is not very likable; he’s sniveling, arrogant, and deeply insecure. But the society that surrounds Josef K. is not interested in his innocence or his guilt. The Trial offers no real trial at all. This is a nightmare where an accusation alone is enough to condemn.

Ryan Holt manages the film blog I’ve Seen That Movie Too. He can be followed on Twitter under the handle @_SeenThatMovie.