Originally a military uniform worn by army officers, designed with details to aid soldiers through the travails of wind, rain and the conditions of trench warfare, the trench coat found its way into the realms of high style, and persists today as a garment of elegance and functionality for both men and women.
The drive to develop fabrics for the manufacture of outerwear that protected one against the elements, began in the 1800’s. As early as 1823, Scotsman Charles Macintosh invented a “rubberized cotton” and made outer garments called “macks,” that were worn by the military and civilians.
In 1853, British clothier John Emary, developed a better fabric, still weatherproof but more breathable, and appropriately renamed his company Aquascutum: “aqua” meaning “water” and “scutum” meaning “shield” in Latin.
It was in 1879, that Thomas Burberry, English gentlemen’s outfitter, invented “gabardine,” a “weatherproofed twill” that began the design development of the iconic Burberry trench coat.
“Embodying a certain cool, effortless, sexy feel with hints of masculinity…. A piece that will never date and a piece that will epitomise chic elegance no matter how you choose to wear it. Simply put, it is a classic to suit every woman.”
It’s true that I’ve had intimate unasked for details of sexual exploits foist upon me, by a tipsy bragging man or woman at a party, but talk of no sex life? Never that, which made Fontanel’s opening claim surprising and even shocking.
Spontaneously I flicked to the back jacket cover, and was greeted by a smiling, radiant, attractive woman, who has been an editor at French Elle for more than a decade. What had prompted this decision, I wanted to know? Fontanel did not apparently find herself simply going through a dry period where no lover materialised to flame her desire; hers was, she tells us, a determination, a choice to be celibate – why?
For a few months Fontanel’s friends tolerated her solitude and state of abstinence with curiosity. Curiosity soon gave way to harassment – had she met someone yet? Why was she not dressed properly – showing more leg, more cleavage and where in heavens name were the high heels? They urged her, shoved her towards a man, any available man, but she was having none of it.
In breezy prose and loosely connected vignettes, the narrative goes on to tell about the sexual lives of Fontanel’s friends. The guy who had been a star but who now is alone and melancholy and lives with his Monet; Henrietta who “bound herself to a man” through love, because she figured that “without anything, one has nothing”; the woman from Basel who extolls the wonderful sex that she has with her industrialist husband, though she still hankers for other men and her husband fantasises about a threesome; the neighbour who has been suffering for five years because his wife won’t let him touch her, as she finds the male body repulsive.
Dissatisfied, compromised, sad lives – what did they tell me, if anything, about what sat at the heart of Fontanel’s story?
Could the key lie in the experience of the young girl who at thirteen looked sixteen? The precocious teenager who followed her lust into a hotel room with a handsome tourist from Mexico, twenty years her senior, a stranger who took what she had unconsciously offered, irreversibly. Did that first sexual experience shape everything that followed?
At twenty her first serious boyfriend had his way with her. He woke her in the middle of the night but she was never grumpy. In bed, he tugged her head this way and that but she didn’t bat an eyelid. He strode around the apartment imperiously. She remained impassive and mysterious but something else lurked within.
One day her boyfriend was in bed watching a television show about dog handlers. Contrary to what the public think, a colonel explained, the dangerous dogs are not those that bark and carry on, appearing fearsome, for those dogs give someone a chance to actually plan an approach and form a relationship with them. The dog that appears placid, on the other hand, that allows you to approach, doesn’t growl, welcomes your pat, then suddenly whips around to tear off your cheek because you have unknowingly touched her on “some nondescript place” – that’s the tricky dog. A picture of a female Dalmatian appeared on the screen. Fontanel chillingly realised – she was that tricky Dalmatian.
Fontanel’s slim volume is a fresh take on the unravelling complexities of desire, that boldly includes the choice to stop making love, for whatever period, without need for explanation or apology.
The Michael Haneke movies that I’ve seen – Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon – I’ve not liked. Amour which won a Palme d’Or at Cannes (2012) and an Oscar for the best foreign language film (2013), is the story of an elderly couple – Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuel Riva) – both retired piano teachers whose lives are shockingly altered when Anne has a stroke. We watch Georges, as suffering caregiver, and Anne as she deteriorates into debilitating paralysis and dementia.
Haneke’s signature style is the grotesque depiction of that which is often painful, shameful, awful, confusing and difficult in life. He has a knack for finding the underbelly of human situations and poking away with a steely gaze. Of course life dishes out to each of us – suffering, pain, agony and degradation; but bubbles of joy, laughter, fun, hope and love also permeate reality.
Art that shows only the sordid and the suffering, and fails to bring forth also the other – a glimmer of the ever-present transcendent, that only art is capable of showing us, is a hollow art. Haneke’s obvious brilliance means that he could have gone further, could have found the silver lining that is always there, then Amour would have been transformed into an extraordinary film.
Eleanor Coppola is serene as she talks about her new film Paris Can Wait. Her tone is steady. Her explanations simple. No hubris. No bravura. She discusses the writing and directing of her first narrative film at age 80, with quiet, good-humoured composure.
“I’m this housewife who suddenly decided to write and direct a film. It was terrifying, but part of the challenge was cutting through all of your fears and just going for it.”
In 2009, Eleanor accompanied her heavyweight filmmaker husband, Francis Ford Coppola, on a trip to Cannes. When it was time to fly to Budapest, she had severe earache and decided that she would skip flying and go instead directly to Paris by train. Her husband’s business associate, a Frenchman, intervened and offered to drive her. What should have been a seven hour trip extended into a scenic drive over two days, along the Cote d’Azur, punctuated by endless titillating meals and a night in a hotel.
Though the relationship with the Frenchman remained ostensibly platonic, it moved her. Time spent with him stirred her out of the ennui of her every day existence, and roused her inwardly. These unplanned and unsought two days with a strange man, sensitised her, awakened her to the smell the roses again. It is this experience, pretty much the same circumstances that are the storyline of her film.
“The story’s very slight, but it needs to build to this unexpected experience this woman has with this man. We all have those experiences in life, that wake you up and open your eyes.”
Though Eleanor had made documentaries, she believed that a narrative film required different skills and orientation, so took a class in directing and another in acting. Her position as a member of a film-making dynasty did not make her complacent. Over six years she brought the pieces together to tell this quasi-autobiographical story. In the seventh decade of her life, she summoned the creative energy to make something from a meaningful moment personally lived.
The film is sleek. Its essential burden – to show the shifts in self of a woman in the presence of a man showering her with attention; seeing her and appreciating her, is a complex, delicate one. These inner transformative movements of the self, the true subject of the film, are challenging to capture in this medium. Probably better suited to the capacious emotional landscape of the novel, they flit and dart on the screen but remain slender. Nonetheless, the making of this film and the final product, constitute a celebratory achievement.