Frédéric Tcheng is a French-born filmmaker. Originally trained in civil engineering, he moved to New York City in 2002 to obtain a Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia University’s film school. He co-produced and co-edited Valentino: The Last Emperor, the 2009 hit shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar. He is the co-director of Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, a Samuel Goldwyn release. Dior and I, his award-winning directorial debut, premiered at the Tribeca film festival in 2014. Frederic also signed the cinematography of Sarah Riggs' cine-poem Six Lives and Erika Frankel's King George. He is currently developing several narrative features.
CINEMA, GHOSTS AND MIRRORS
“One is in danger of not being oneself when one lives at a reflective distancefrom oneself.” J. M. Coetzee
When I sat down with Raf Simons to discuss the project for the first time, I was struck by his palpable reticence. It’s understandable that anyone might be reluctant to let a camera crew shadow them relentlessly for three months, but Raf's concern seemed to run deeper. I sensed that the vulnerability he was showing would become central to the film. In his 1956 memoir "Christian Dior & I," Dior discusses at length his own feeling of alienation through media exposure. "There are two Christian Diors—Christian Dior, the man in the public eye and Christian Dior, the private individual—who seem to get further and further apart.” As Raf got to know me better, he became less intimidated by the presence of the camera, but I knew that he remained quite apprehensive about the level of publicity that would come with his first Dior show. I set out to film his transformation into a camera-mobbed public figure. The motif of the camera flash—intrusive, blinding and exposing—kept on coming back to me. Maybe the camera does steal the soul.
The mirror, and the double it inspires, were also recurring themes that emerged during filming. If there had been a double Dior (the public and the private man), one could imagine Raf as an uncanny reincarnation of Dior himself. He shared the same intense guarding of his private life, the same background in the arts. As I continued to read Dior’s memoirs, I realized that the past also mirrored the present - and vice versa. Everything that was happening in front of my lens matched, almost to the last detail of character or emotion, what Christian Dior had described in long chapters about the making of a collection. Here I recognized this seamstress; there I recognized that tense situation. It is certainly a testament to the power of traditions. History repeats itself.
But then I thought: what a scary feeling this must be for Raf. How could he be expected to change the course of history while at the same time channeling the past? How would he impose his own mark? At Dior’s headquarters in Paris, it is impossible not to feel the presence of the founder. His picture is everywhere. I started imagining that Raf must feel like Mrs. De Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, overwhelmed by the ghostly presence of the past occupant of the house. Raf’s story would be one of emancipation.
With these feelings, I wanted to further explore the dialogue between the past and the present through cinematic means, and the voice-over of Christian Dior became an important narrative tool. I used it conventionally in the beginning of the film to narrate archival sequences, but as the film progresses, it shifts from the past to the present and becomes a commentary on Raf’s experience. The line becomes blurred. The audience peers through the looking glass. This mysterious connection to distant moments in history also inspired my desire to give the archival sequences a spectral quality. What else are movies, if not apparitions of ghosts long passed away? In Haute Couture, the first mock-ups of dresses are called toiles - which, in French, is also the colloquial word for movie screen. In order to conjure the persistence of Dior’s designs, I decided to literally make them appear on the toiles. At night, shadows of its heritage come to haunt the house.
This contrasts with the daytime energy of the atelier, a dynamic space filled with light and bustling with activity that exists as an extraordinary microcosm. It is a place suspended between past and present, and home to a collection of dedicated and endearing personalities. When I worked with Matt Tyrnauer on the Valentino documentary, my only approximate command of Italian made my interaction with the seamstresses somewhat limited. But on this film, working in my native French, I was able to delve deeper into the personal connection these artisans share with their work. Tucked away on the top floor of the house’s historic building, the atelier is Dior’s “soul,” as Catherine Rivière explains in the film.
The house of Dior is a storied world where managers, artists, and workers collaborate on a daily basis to create a vision and I consider the film to be an ensemble piece. Through immersing the viewer in the world of Dior and revealing the extraordinary effort required to produce a collection, I hoped the film would ultimately reveal a cross section of Parisian life, in the tradition of great French social realists like Renoir and Zola.
Who is the “I,” in the title Dior and I? I strived to keep the answer open to many possibilities.
- Frédéric Tcheng, Brooklyn
- March 1, 2014
Director's cut: Frédéric Tcheng turns the lens on Raf Simons in 'Dior and I' - Wallpaper Magazine