The Dressmaker: Chanel Unchained, by David Bax
Jocelyn Moorhouse doesn’t have time to wait around for you to catch up to her in the baroque, sultry, hothouse, widescreen neo-Western The Dressmaker. In the opening scene, a bombshell in a black dress pours out of a car and walks a few steps down the inky, dusty main street of a tiny outback town. She stops, lights a cigarette, takes one, luxurious drag and spits out these words: “I’m back, you bastards.” Things don’t get any more subtle from there. This scene is Moorhouse saying, “Get on my level” and if you’re willing to do so, The Dressmaker has some gorgeous, vicious fun in store for you.
Tilly (Kate Winslet) is that bombshell and she’s returned to her hometown of Dungatar ostensibly to take care of her sickly old crank of a mother (Judy Davis, wretchedly delightful). But she’s also brought with her all the skills and fabrics she’s acquired during her time in the 1940s and 1950s European fashion world, which she will use to produce stunning frock’s for the women of the arid, superannuated hamlet, upsetting the staid routine of the townspeople and angering those who resist change. If that sounds a little like Lasse Hallström’s mawkish Chocolat, don’t worry. The Dressmaker has a blade hidden in the folds of its frock. Tilly, it turns out, didn’t leave Dungatar voluntarily. She was essentially banished as a small girl after being implicated in the death of a boy in her class. Now she’s come back to find out what happened and to seek retribution for her lost childhood.
Despite the mid-twentieth century setting and the fashion motif, Moorhouse makes it clear that The Dressmaker is a Western, first and foremost. It helps that she’s assembled an all-star crew behind the scenes. The score by David Hirschfelder (Shine, Elizabeth) has a theme composed of the thrumming percussion, jangling guitars and deep chimes associated with Ennio Morricone’s work for Sergio Leone. And cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!, Predator) recalls the brilliant, lurid scope of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun. All of this unfolds with the backdrop of an incredible, full scale set of the town created by a production designer (Roger Ford) best known for fantasy films like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and P.J. Hogan’s vastly underrated 2003 telling of Peter Pan. Finally, a film called The Dressmaker needs to have a damned good costume designer. Moorhouse hired two. To reflect Tilly’s nearly extraterrestrial sartorial choices as compared to the rest of Dungatar, Marion Boyce dressed the bulk of the cast while Margo Wilson (The Thin Red Line, The Road) saw specifically to Winslet.
Moorhouse matches the aesthetic hyperbole with a tone heightened to an unrelenting fever pitch. With this in mind, perhaps it’s not the work of Leone or John Ford to which the film should be compared but to the splashy, pomo Westerns of Quentin Tarantino. Every inhabitant of Dungatar is a different grotesque archetype but, when the town’s women swoop down the dirt roads in billowing, voluptuous 1950s gowns and finery, The Dressmaker leaves reality completely. So intense is Moorhouse sense of theatricality that the film often feels wonderfully like a musical with the songs removed.
All of this excess serves a purpose. Dungatar’s adherence to the status quo has become toxic. Whatever actually happened the day that boy died, the lie agreed upon has infected the town, rotting it to the bone. The strict conformity required to carry on has resulted in a deathlike mass hallucination. The townspeople have sacrificed their own souls by sacrificing Tilly’s. Perhaps being drenched in flowing, pastel chiffon is the only thing that can shake them from this torpor. If not, hopefully they’ll drown in it.
The Dressmaker is a pulpy, comic, revenge thriller and a crowd pleaser, at least for those crowds able to get on its wavelength. But, for the world’s outcasts and oddballs too smart and mature to seek revenge in the real world, it’s also a bit of glorious catharsis.