NR | 1 h 43 min | Musical, Comedy | 1957
Early in his career, Stanley Donen was more of a dancer and choreographer. Later, he co-directed and co-choreographed onscreen musicals with some of the most endearing onscreen dancers, including Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. He’d danced on Broadway, too. But long before that, he’d imbibed something of the aura of the world of fashion; his father had been a dress-shop manager and his grandfather a jewelry salesman. So it all seemed to come together when he directed “Funny Face.”
The film’s lighthearted plot differs vastly from that of the Broadway musical that inspired it. It also wields the visual language of glamor to gently, albeit comically, poke fun at the fashion industry’s fleeting façade.
New York fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) and ace photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) talent-spot bookstore clerk Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) out of obscurity. Their insistence transforms a shy, restless philosophy nerd, contemptuous of fashion, into a no-less-restless glamor girl in Paris, Europe’s fashion capital. Prescott even has celebrated couturier Paul Duval (Robert Flemyng) design a whole line of clothing for and around Jo.
Rather ambitiously, Prescott and Avery are marketing “clothes for the woman who isn’t interested in clothes.” They want a girl who’s beautiful and intellectual, a mascot who effortlessly blends all-too-common grace, elegance, and pizzazz with a rarer mix of character, spirit, and intelligence. So Jo sashays to Avery’s photoshoots as an increasingly irresistible model, but her heart’s set on finding herself, not grasping at money or gracing magazine covers. Soon, they fall in love.
Surrounded by unprecedented adulation, Jo is pulled in opposing directions.
First, her idol, Paris-based philosopher-professor Emile Flostre’s (Michel Auclair) theory of “empathicalism” (a highbrow if shallow play on the theme of empathy) promises a loftier path to self-discovery. At the very hint of hearing him lecture, she shows up late for or skips Prescott’s glamor campaigns.
Color, Dance, and SongDirector Donen is saying: Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But sometimes it is the beholder. His painstakingly crafted sequences help Hepburn pivot from a plain onlooker to the center of attention. And what an arresting center she is. Her ballet-trained limbs deliver superlative high-kicks and low-bends, both classical and contemporary—a treat for audiences used to Astaire’s legendary footwork. She also sings the most haunting track, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
Apart from that song, the soundtrack includes other lively numbers by the George and Ira Gershwin brothers: “He Loves, She Loves,” “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” and the title track “Funny Face.”
Cinematographer Ray June captures an incandescent Hepburn against spectacular Parisian landmarks and otherwise routine photographic subjects: steam from a train, a flower market, a staircase, a fishing stream, a fountain, even a sudden drizzle. Subtly, he pits the lasting beauty of great architecture against the triviality and temperamental nature of fashion: He pits permanence against transience. Self-reflectively, his panoramic shots of Paris and Avery’s photoshoots ask: Isn’t the next best thing usually stillborn or fading soon after it earns its stripes?
Multitalented Kay Thompson, who’d been a vocal coach for the likes of Judy Garland, anchors the comedic bits that together form a humorous self-critique of Prescott. Listen to her hilariously deadpan reply when asked why she isn’t wearing pink when leading her “Think Pink” campaign.
American portrait photographer Richard Avedon guided the film’s visual artistry. His breezy two-minute title montage includes a still-photographer’s camera, a designer’s work pencils, studio slides, film rolls, mock-ups of a magazine’s design, and layout. And a magnifying glass typically used to spot the tiniest errors, whether in a fraying fashion garment or a frizzy headline typeface. Later, the famed “Avedon blur” features in stunning freeze-frames of Jo.
To Prescott, Jo’s face is “funny.” To Avery, it’s “interesting.” That’s why Jo loves Avery’s gifted eye (seeing something precious in her that she can’t see in herself). It isn’t only because he’s in love with her face. Moodily, she admits that her Prescott-sponsored trip to Paris might not be a total loss. If she finds facetime with Flostre, Paris might be a “means to an end.”
Avery playfully hints that self-discovery might not elude her after all, and Paris might well turn out to be a “means to a new beginning.”