A fashionable film is a beautiful film. By definition. Cinema and couture are primarily (or, at the very least, initially) visual mediums, and movies that are able to use fashion in memorable ways — ways that specifically establish a character or a tone — leave a stylish impact. Be it Alicia Silverstone shrilly introducing audiences to the high-fashion name ‘Alaya’ in Clueless, Daniel Day-Lewis sewing messages into the linings of gowns he designs in Phantom Thread, or the aggressively alpha male secret agents arguing about Gucci and Prada belts and purses in The Man From U.N.C.L.E, sartorial distinctiveness can go a long way.
In Cruella, a high priestess of fashion arrives at a gala in a gunmetal-grey Jaguar Mark X — a majestic, imposing car much the province of gangsters and tax evaders — but before she can step onto the red carpet, two formally dressed valets use a seatbelt-wide strip of tape to seal the car doors shut. A spectacular figure mounts the Jaguar, the bottomless red flares of her dress acting like curtains for the woman in the car. The mystery lady poses for the front pages. It’s an audacious, implausible and utterly divine moment: pure fashion.
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Directed by Craig Gillespie, the film — streaming on Disney+ Hotstar from August 27 — is a superbly tailored adventure, an origin story that takes the fearsome villain of 101 Dalmatians and turns her into a smashing antiheroine with way too much personality. Cruella is a swinging, oomphy affair, tipsy on its own silliness. The film is threaded by genius costumier Jenny Beavan (of Mad Max: Fury Road) who gets to strut her stuff in the flashiest of ways.
The aforementioned flash is carried off with scarcely believable élan by Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, playing duelling fashionistas eager to change the world — and to emblazon their own face across it. These Academy Award winning actresses are wondrous together, cutting through Cruella with barbs and brilliance.
The plot is simplicity itself, involving an orphaned girl growing up to become a thieving con-artist but who really, really wants to be a fashion designer. Think Lemony Snicket meets The Devil Wears Prada, but done by someone really cool, with an affinity for sharp clothes and soundtracks perforated by needle-drops. Gillespie — who once directed the lovely Lars And The Real Girl, where a mousy Ryan Gosling is in love with a blow-up doll resembling Angelina Jolie — is having a blast here, accompanied by screenwriter Tony McNamara, who created The Great and wrote The Favourite.
Stone, who was superb as a tortured underling finding high-society footholds to insinuate herself into positions of advantage in The Favourite, scrambles around here as well. She plays the title character — one split into the alter egos of Estella, a sad girl with striking black and white hair and Cruella, her true swaggering, ruthless self — with a bouncy indecision, somehow nerdy and graceful at once. Her accent is delightful, her anime eyes agleam with enthusiasm and, as she dons mad outfit after mad outfit with ravenous flair, she looks to be sashaying to a beat entirely her own. Stone creates what is — to paraphrase David Bowie — ‘a brand new dance; we don’t know its name.’
Humanising a villain is tricky, and the chain-smoking Cruella De Vil is an ambitious ask, for while audiences have demonstrated an appetite for misunderstood murderers, eloquent cannibals and dishy vampires, it is hard to imagine a crowd warming up to one who steals pets and skins them for a winter coat. See My Vest, that appallingly catchy song from The Simpsons featuring Mr Burns wearing various animals (“See this hat, ’twas my cat”) never tries to make you side with the withered tyrant. This Disney film, however, changes the villain’s spots. Even when wicked, she’s never truly bad. No dogs are harmed in the making of this De Vil.
Cruella’s sights, instead, are trained exclusively on The Baroness — she wants her position, she wants her jewels and she wants her own revenge. Thompson, gloved head to heel in couture, looks at the world around her with a glance so withering she makes Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada feel like a kindly aunt. She delivers her glorious self-celebrating pronouncements as if on a salver, leaving even Cruella agog. In an extraordinary scene in the back of a car, The Baroness takes but an instant to first turn down Cruella’s idea, then immediately steal it, and then wipe her mouth with a napkin and, perfectly poised, toss silverware nonchalantly out of the rear window. It’s a showstopper.
The film is, alas, not an unqualified success. Cruella feels a good 20 minutes too long, and Gillespie goes overboard in using popular songs to underscore the coolth of the scenes. Some intriguing characters are given short shrift: Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling, Kayvan Novak (from What We Do In The Shadows) as the Baroness’s lawyer and, most importantly, John McCrea’s glam designer Artie, who is apparently “the first openly gay original character in a live-action Disney movie,” or so the studio believes. One assumes they’ll find greater place in the inevitable sequel. (While on sequels, where will we draw the line at villain origin-stories? Cruella is certainly more imaginative and original than Todd Phillips’ overrated Joker, but what next? If Cruella sequels shine, will we get another origin story explaining why The Baroness turned out this way?)
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Cruella seesaws between the sounds of the swinging sixties and the rising edge of punk rock. Style is forever, as are the creators fighting to shape it. The Emmas carry the day. Stone has the future written across her face, Thompson makes the past look bloody good. God save these queens. For now, the dogs are besides the point. Fashion eats fashion.
Streaming tip of the week:
In the mood for genuinely weird horror? Try the Netflix series Brand New Cherry Flavor, where a B-movie filmmaker hellbent on revenge dabbles with the dark arts. Supernatural kittens abound.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.