Givenchy

A widow is pursued by her murdered husband’s former confederates for booty she does not know she has, but—it turns out—does. This is of course Stanley Donen’s Charade, of 1963, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, which we saw the other day in an art-house revival.

The convoluted plot is of little interest. The celebrated wit is now pretty toe-curling. Cary Grant is done no favours by the meticulously restored print. He looks shabby, and bewildered. He mugs, he gurns, stuck somewhere between camp and hopeless. The bad guys are props: The Cowboy, The Thug, An Old Lag, Mr. Brains. Stupid to a man, each popping off colourfully, as in a game of Cluedo. We do not for a moment suppose Miss Hepburn is in any danger.

I have a theory about what is going on here, and you miss it if you take the premise of this Hitchcockian thriller seriously, even for the conventional suspensions of disbelief. The stupidity, I propose, is not a flaw but a feature, a subversive cultural and political parable.

On one side the Americans. Cary Grant, who turns out to be a government employee in a poky office, a Treasury man, monolingual it goes without saying, and the four stumblebums, ex-GIs who have fallen out over stolen Nazi gold. All of them after the money. Then there is, well, Miss Hepburn, who is also American but has gone native in Paris. In her own way curiously detached, but nevertheless emotionally intelligent and responsive. She knows certain things, and only those things. She knew she was not in love with her husband. She knows she is in love with Cary Grant.
“Do you know what’s wrong with you?” she asks him.
“No, what?”
“Nothing!” she says.
A line worthy of Rosalind, or Juliet.

On her side too is Paris. Hotel rooms and public gardens, a clever boy and a sophisticated connoisseur of stamps.

And the Givenchy gowns and coats and pill box hats.

Audrey Hepburn in Charade, 1963

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, Phantom Thread, which we have also seen this week, is set, as it happens, at the same cultural moment, although in a different place, in a different register. An English fashion house of the 1950s, catering to royalty, celebrities, society figures. A disturbance, a crisis of control, even to the survival of the house. The neurotic couturier Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, his sister, the formidable Lesley Manville, his young lover, Vicky Krieps. A grotesque plot twist involving poisonous mushrooms.

A love story? A black comedy? Mostly I’m inclined to think it’s about the dresses. A succession of them, each more stunning than the last, constructed, built, spun into being by an army of middle-aged women, artists of needle and thread and thimble, who troop daily in and out of the House of Woodcock. The film is about the beauty and fragility of late art form on the cusp of disintegration. About the seriousness of style.

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Which brings one back to Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy, its wordless riposte to everything. Reminded that the release of Charade, in the fall of 1963, was the moment of the Kennedy assassination, and how impossible now to separate Hepburn’s lonely figure from Jackie Kennedy’s, who was also dressed by Givenchy.

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