TONIC STATES: LET THE SWAN BE YOUR GUIDE
WHITELIES is pleased to introduce LET THE SWAN BE YOUR GUIDE, a new film with an eerie fashion focus on Antwerp from the hands of Lee Wei Swee and Alexia Cayre.
Dedicated fashion films have a slippery existence. Despite the efforts of projects like SHOWstudio, m2m, Diane Pernet's A Shaded View on Fashion Film and festivals held everywhere from New York, London and Milan to Berlin, Chicago and Istanbul (indeed, one in La Jolla, California declares itself the “Cannes of Fashion Film”), they're rarely taken seriously enough as creative endeavors independent of the industry, given their formal proximity to marketing.
It's a delicate task, balancing expression and style with wit and cinematic mettle – but someone's got to do it. Beautifully styled by Erik Raynal; Cayre and Swee present their pilot for a series of fashion films entitled TONIC STATES made to showcase the fashion scenes of cities beyond the London/Milan/New York/Paris paradigm.
Let The Swan Be Your Guide is their surreal portrait of Antwerp; part city guide, part reverie through time. The film puts emerging fashion in the spotlight, mixing it with the archives of the city's more established houses in an homage to its role as an avant-garde incubator for some of the most influential designers in the world.
WHITELIES took a closer look in conversation with the film's directors…
Do you think fashion film is taken as seriously as it could be?
Lee Wei Swee: Fashion film isn't made as seriously as it could be. In our age of PR and commercials filling in for creativity, the emphasis is put on an instant return of investment. So, most of the footage is product-based with simple storylines, pushing desirable lifestyles over offering a vector of beliefs and ideas. It could be a laboratory for a whole lot of practices to meet up.
So what brought you together to work on this project?
Alexia Cayre: I was working at a production company in Paris in 2014 and had introduced Lee Wei into our roster as a fashion film director. He had this idea for a beauty film centered around a spa, but it didn't end up happening. When I left the company we developed the idea and it slowly developed into this. We pushed the narrative out of the spa, so that other episodes from this lush woman's day could be staged in strategic places in Antwerp. The overall mood for the film is one of “para-reality”, where the protagonists are archetypes identifiable by color or activity, often reappearing as the day evolves in pace and tone.
Where do your titles come from?
AC: In this instance it's an extract from the legend of Brabo and the Giant Antigoon, Antwerp's founding myth. An oracle tells the story's hero, “Let the swan be your guide”.
Tonic States is a scientific term. It's a state of hypnotized paralysis animals assume when playing dead to ward off predators. I was most impressed by videos of divers putting sharks into this dreamy, vertical state of sleep by gently touching the shark's snout. We thought it plays well with the idea of «state» as a territory, the subject of our series being cities. We identify the project as fiction weaved into reality so this notion of dreamscapes is something we wanted to channel.
The film's temporality and visuals do give it a contemporary sci-fi feel. How intentional was the tendency towards this genre?
AC: My work is generally a form of staged reality. In telling stories, you always shape things to look the way you see them. I'm not trying to be a realist; when things look just polished enough, they take on a different, more universal meaning and that sparks the imagination. I like films that have a sci-fi feel through subtleties in the cinematography. Terrence Mallick's Knight of Cups is one example – those sweeping wide-angle perspectives bring small human gestures into surreal focus.
I also love the motif of vengeful women, caught in an endless cavalcade of destruction, like Meiko Kaji in the Scorpion trilogy. I think that sense of repetition and relentlessness left a strong impression on me.
Where does the sense of temporal isolation and alienation in the film come from?
AC: I think the way we consume information, social behaviors and history is very schizophrenic and the film’s treatment of these themes reflects that. Both Lee Wei and I have an interest in the tension between the past and the future in our personal work and I think our generation is wrought with the contradictions within that tension. We're living longer, but still idolize youth; we have unlimited information at the tips of our fingers, but the attention spans of children.
Any technical influences you can point out?
LWS: The work of Emmanuel Lubezki made an impact on the cinematography, mostly this idea of a camera that travels back and forth between omniscient observer and active intimacy (Lubezki calls this “fluidity”). We also like Wong Kar Wai's method of putting together a story by shooting scenes that take shape in the edit. Tourism board videos were another influence. There's something fascinating about that flavor of corporate positivity and the genre's strong visual coding – this over-romanticization of culture, a camera always in motion (almost always forward) and the duality between future and tradition.
AC: We wanted a result that would capture the feeling of urgency you get in some Nouvelle Vague films, but with a sharp digital look that feels contemporary. The use of déjà-vu and cuts is something we both really loved in the work of Clouzot's La Prisonnière for example.
Let’s talk about your relationship to Antwerp.
AC: We had a privileged introduction to our leading subject, as Lee Wei had been living there for a couple years and many of our friends are Academy alumni. It seemed like the perfect place to illustrate a state of simultaneous immobility and unrest.
LWS: I still spend a fair share of my time in Antwerp. I was attracted to the cosmopolitan community that the academy created – the city is a great incubator for talent. It's highly fashion-focused but still compact (with a population of about half a million people), which allows people to be expressive with less of the social pressures of Paris or London.
AC: I felt a similarity between Antwerp's framework and my native Paris. A large city contains many secrets…and with older cities like these, there can be a sort of violent cohabitation of past glory and present chaos. There are some older historical references in the film also, shooting at the Rubens house for example.
Tell us about the fashion in the project.
AC: The pieces we chose were really dictated by each scene's context and color palette, using a mixture of old and new designers across all of them. I had met our stylist Erik previously in Paris and kept an eye on his work. I approached him about the project and he was enthusiastic about sourcing archival pieces and mixing them with the work of the Academy's alumni. The beginning of the Belgian fashion scene, as the film retraces it, was the emergence of the “Antwerp Six”. They stood for an avant-garde that juxtaposed traditional tailoring with deconstruction and dry humour with political critique. That community was charged with a sense of family and humility that really drew us to it.
Would you say Belgian fashion still gets the recognition it deserves?
AC: It seems like a lot of Belgian designers carry the city's legacy to other countries, so in that sense, yes. The classics – Dries Van Noten, Raf Simons, Ann Demeulemeester, Maison Martin Margiela etc – are still producing and regenerating and that's reflected in a very healthy fanbase.
You took some lines from TS Eliot's first published poem, Prufrock. What made you choose these lines as a narrative device? Or was it the poem's stream-of-consciousness style?
AC: Eliot's work has this combination of mundane imagery and big themes that lends itself very well to film. Prufrock is especially fraught with an expression of indecisive paralysis and fragmentation that plays well with the continuous movement in the film. The structure of the poem also lends itself well to a dance-music interpretation, orchestrated in the film by the versatile Egon Elliutt (it doesn't hurt that they almost share a name too).
It's an early Modernist poem, emblematic of the shift away from Romanticism...
AC: I think the project embraces the same continuity with past references, and certainly a feeling of melancholy. To quote Beaudelaire “Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable.” In that sense, we wanted to create something deeply rooted in the «now» while still emulating timeless ideas of frenetic beauty.
Written, produced and directed by
Alexia Cayre & Lee Wei Swee
Interview Ella Plevin