Cruella and the meaning of live action

A film “borderline”

We choose this strong title because we think that the last Dinsey’s live action helps us to think about relativity in categorizing films genres, in a special way. There a lot of english words internationally diffused in the world of cinema; one of them is “live action”, used to indicate films for young people edited without the use of animation. The tecnological evolution has encouraged directors to develop mixed products (with both real shooting and animation), or to realize with the animation tecnhique something similar to a shooted film (“Shrek”, “Lion King” remake are few examples). Categories are becaming more flexibles. Also Wes Anderson, to make an example, has choosen the way of animation to express himself with “The Isle of Dogs” and he won the bet.  Sometimes animation stimulate film directors, and Spielberg knows it well, having co-founded Dreamworks.

There a lot of reasons to consider “Cruella” a borderline film genre. The film is inspired by one of the most classical disney cartoon: “One hundred and one Dalmatians”, but it decides to show us an hipotetical different point of view: one of the classic antagonist Cruella. Cruella his shown as a complex character with important past experiences and interesting psycology dynamics. It has no similiraties with the live action remake of 1996 with Glenn Close, in which the story was the same.

Nevertheless the “easy-going” narrative style makes the film suitable for a young public. In fact the film is defined as a “live action crime comedy”; topics are close to a crude film but the lightness of writing style and direction is the same of a “comedy” or a “musical”. The film director, Craig Gillespie, is known to tell difficult stories with a special brightness around it (think about “Tonya” with Margot Robbie). The question is: is it a product for young or for adults? But maybe the right question is: what can give to both of them, in different ways?

The narrative 

The film faces universal topics: growth, fear and courage. It starts in “medias res” as a “bildungsroman” telling us the story by the beginning, when Cruella was a child, and his name was Estella (but during the whole film she maintains a double name: Estella-Cruella). Cruella tells us that from the beginning she had to live with a double personality: a kind character encouraged by the mother and a rebel one encouraged by negative circumstances. But each time that rebel personality comes out is to defende herself or someone weaker. When the school chooses to expell her the mother understands that Estella has to follow his misunderstood genius and decides to move with her to London, the capital of fashion.  It is now the true beginning of the “heroic tragedy” of Estella-Cruella.

Asking for money, the Estella’s mother falls from a cliff, while Estella is watching the scene, thinking to be indirectly the cause. Estella his hurted and Cruella now has to count only on her own. She moves to London alone, as an orphan tramp, and she mets two little stealers, Orazio and Gaspare. She starts to live with them in shadows. But one day the Baroness, a brilliant and arrogant stylist, recognizes his talent and decides to assume Estella in his “empire”. It is the second “turning point” of the script: from now Estella-Cruella starts the route towards the knowledge of his fatal destiny.

Tha Baroness recognizes more and more creativity of Estella, but Estella maintains always reverence towards the Baroness, even when the Baroness’ succes became more and more from his work. But there are two upsetting discoveries about the Baroness that Estella has still to discover…we can only say (to make not spoiler) that the Baroness will became a real “nemesis” of Estella-Cruella. This is crucial because we can see how the film, on one hand show us a complex and originale character, and on the other hand a rigid antagonist, without any kind of shades and nuances, even more cruel than the original Cruella of the cartoon. The comedian Estella-Cruella needs the absolute criminality of the Baroness? (we are not enphasizing, the Baroness is a real absolute criminal, you will see why…)

But how Cruella can be considered a “comedian” and the Baroness an absolute criminal? Paolo Borsellino (an anti-mafia Judge) has said that courage isn’t the opposite of fear, but the abitily to accept the fear and live togheter with it. Thiniking about the Baroness and Cruella we can say that the Baroness “became” a black character without nuances, without accepting his fears while Cruella is able to maintain a bright side even when she is lost. This is why Cruella is a true artist (you will see how emotional are some scenes…one with the joke of a cloth made with insects, or the one with the garbage-camion with clothes.. the Baronnes won’t be able to understand to react to the beauty of these jokes because of his rigidity and arrogance).

Even when Estella thinks to be responsible for the mother’s accident we understand from the beginning that is quite impossible: Estella is followed by the dogs but why they decide to attack the mother? Secondly, but not less important, a so sweet child deserves a a so crude episode? The spectator is put on the right perspective even from the beginning, in which things are not clear. This is why we can consider this film a “puzzle”, in which the “form” is always clear but it has to be completed with a “substance”. The voice-off in “medias res” that tell us “Estella is died” means that the narrator and the specator are already aware of the essence of the story: it is what Gilles Deleuze called “affection-image”, something that is not separable from the events but at the same time is always over the events. It is the “affection”, showed clearly by the expression of a face: stationary and at the same time moving.

The direction 

The dynamis of the scenes reminds us Keaton’s cinema, briging us to the origin of cinema. The direction and the ability of actresses compensate for the script, that is not so good, sometimes too slow, sometimes too fast. It is uncommon in a live action this strong role of the actresses: what we see is a great use of voice and gestures-expressions combined with great images even improved with computer effects.

The actress of Cruella seems destined to play this character. When she was a child she was very emotional (she suffered also of panick attacks) and it was theatre that gives to her the chance to overcome these problems). An other annedoct is that Emma Stone, when she was an infant, suffered from a problem to vocal chords that gave her the ability to change radically the voice’s timbry (used for Cruella’s strong timbry).

The affection-image 

As we have already said the use of “affection image” is very interesting. The ambiguity of the scenes (suspicions, dissimulations) can guess us the question: what Cruella is really thinking about? This is why his the face’s expressions are fundamental to find a certainty even in ambigous situations and it is also the “image” of his ability to face ambivalence. In the end we can ask: Estella is really overcome by Cruella or even when she was acting as Estella she was in a certain way true?

An other interesting aspect that we want to underline is the particularity of Stone’s face: Deleuze was used to classify two principal faces, tha intensive one and the reflecting one. The first one was charaterized by facial features prevailing compared to the outlines of the face, the second one was the face’s silhouette to prevail reflecting a thought. In this case even when there is the dominance of the face’s silhouette we are not able to see it clear, because of  a very “transparent skin” and “alienating” facial features. We see a reflection that is at the same time “intensive”,  perfect to reflect the tension of the ambiguity. The perfect example is the scene in which Cruella discovers the first violence of the Baroness and she decides for the revenge (you can see it as the photo of the article): it seems that there is not a border within external worlds and his internal mood, because of transparency of his face.

A di-ffering sequel 

Last, but not least, we have to talk about relation of Cruella with the classical movie “101 Dalmatians”. In the classical one dogs were important because were able to educate children facing arrogance with phantasy. Dogs were very realistic compared to animals of other cartoons, the ability to be both animals and both humans (they don’t speak with words to humans, but only within them), encouraged children to find in reality itself the magic. This is why “101 Dalmatians” was considered one of the most “magical” disney cartoon. A lot of fans protest for the choice of writers to reverse the story and telling a Cruella version. But what they misunderstanding is the essence of cinema and more in general of phantasy: the dissimulation. The ability of this film is to narrate the same “concept” changing elements. This is what Deleuze called di-fference, a “virtuality”  that can be “actualized” in different ways.