Seen & Noted: ‘Dead Fashion Girl’, ‘The Candidate’
The sheer volume of entertainment and leisure options available to us now is so unprecedented that it’s hard to find a way through the information overload. I rely less on press critics these days, but there are certain bloggers I trust who seem to have similar ahem, ‘eclectic’ tastes to mine. Ultimately I always try to keep an open mind. If you like some or any of my writing you may find my recommendations useful, so from now on they’ll be stored here under Seen & Noted*.
Dead Fashion Girl
Let’s start with a new book from Strange Attractor Press by Fred Vermorel, ‘Dead Fashion Girl: A Situationist Detective Story’. Situationism is the theory used in psychology that assumes that a person’s behaviour is dictated largely by their situation rather than by personal attributes. It’s a helpful definition for this extraordinary book, curated as much as written, using archival research, news clippings, magazine spreads, advertisements, official records, theatre programmes and photographer’s contact sheets to tell the story of Jean Mary Townsend, who was strangled in Ealing with her own scarf and stripped of her underwear.
The subsequent police investigation was bungled, leading to a six-decade cover-up, ensuring that the 21 year-old fashion designer was effectively killed twice: first bodily, and again as her significance and her memory were erased. Vermorel’s forensic, troubling (and trouble-making) investigation digs deep into Jean Townsend’s life and times, and her transgressive bohemian milieu.
Along the way it exposes a hidden city, bringing the postwar night world of London to the light, and by doing so it gets closer to recreating the real atmosphere of Soho and its environs than any book in recent memory. Vermorel pokes his nose in where it’s clearly not wanted and describes the attitudes of the period’s police, the routine miscarriages and dodgy dealings. If someone died in a cell on your watch, you simply took them out and left them propped up against a tree on the common. Much of the information the author extracts feels dubious, from people who can barely remember their youth let alone pick out an individual night, but that’s the nature of investigation, and his meandering decades-long probe into past indiscretions yields all manner of shocking detail about the social mores of the 1950s. It’s open-ended but finding a killer ceases to be the point halfway through when the journey becomes the point.
Spain makes great grown-up movies, and the multi award-winning ‘The Candidate’ (its Spanish title translates as ‘The Realm’) is a perfect example. Because it’s available on quick-fix Netflix the few viewers who stumble across it will probably give up after the first 15 minutes, which would be a terrible mistake. It starts with a ‘Goodfellas’ rip-off in which a businessman walks off a beach into the kitchen of a restaurant, picks up a plate of shrimp and carries it to a table of employees. But who is their employer and what is their work?
This takes a little patience to uncover. Initially there’s a dense wall of sound as conversations overlap – you’re meant to be thrown in at the deep end and it’s deliberately confusing – but through the odd references you soon realise that they’re politicians and developers who all have dirty hands; they’ve profited from EU cash illegally used, but now the mierda has hit the fan, because one of them has been very publicly outed.
Great dramas are created when things fall apart, and so it proves here. Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) is going to carry the can for everyone else, but for the love of his wife and daughter he won’t go down without a fight. So begins his long and very, very dark night of the soul, as suddenly the gears click and tension rises; Manuel – as guilty as all the rest but perhaps redeemable – hurtles off around Madrid to take down his colleagues, playing one against the other. The camera prowls behind him as he struts into offices and pulls out trick after trick in order to stay afloat. The last half-hour is almost unbearably tense, climaxing in three set-pieces; a house break-in, an eerie car chase at night and an electrifying live TV interview.
Antonio de la Torre comes on like a younger, more feral Dustin Hoffman, short and strutting, with an angry fast walk and a penetrating stare. The women’s roles are terrific – a loyal wife fast losing her patience, a mistrustful journalist – probably because of the film’s male/female writing team, and the whole thing is driven by a sweat-inducing techno beat. With the solid exception of ‘Uncut Gems’ there are no films like this coming out of Hollywood. It’s so densely coiled that after it’s over and you’ve declenched your fists it would be worth returning to the first half hour and unpicking it. You have been warned.