Typical Girls

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Caprice (1986)


Typical Girls

By Chloe Lizotte

On Joanna Hogg’s riotous directorial debut, Caprice.

Caprice is currently streaming exclusively on Metrograph At Home. Joanna Hogg’s latest collaboration with Tilda Swinton, The Eternal Daughter screens at 7 Ludlow through December 14.

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Caprice builds to a heartfelt affirmation, blurted with youthful sincerity. Our heroine, Lucky—played by a then-unknown, 26-year-old Tilda Swinton—declines a job offer from Caprice, a fashion magazine facetiously modeled after Andy Warhol’s Interview. When we first meet Lucky, bespectacled and shy, we learn she is a religious reader of Caprice, but following a literal, fantastical journey through its pages, she is left demoralized and bruised by an Oz built by advertisers. After the magazine’s editor, face ominously obscured by a funereal black veil, presses Lucky to contemplate what her life will be like without Caprice—its celebrities for guidance, its money for comfort—Lucky replies, “Not much I suppose. But at least it’s mine.”

When Joanna Hogg revisited Caprice around the time she was completing the first installment of The Souvenir (2019), she mentioned to Senses of Cinema that this ending “completely [fired her] up again.” This was Hogg’s film school thesis short, made in 1986 when she was at the National Film and Television School, and it harkens back to the period of her youth she was mining with The Souvenir; during her school days, Caprice was ripped apart by her tutors as a superficial, juvenile exercise. For modern viewers curious about Hogg’s early work, it stands in surprisingly baroque, playful contrast to her feature films, the first three of which bear an aesthetic of patient, subtle minimalism—though recently, Hogg has dipped into dreamier vignettes in both parts of The Souvenir, and in her memory-palace Gothic The Eternal Daughter (2022). Caprice is simultaneously a capsule of Hogg’s earliest cinematic obsessions and an energetic mission statement for her later films, all of which stem from Lucky’s “at least it’s mine.” How does someone—specifically a woman, in most of Hogg’s features—untangle herself from the things that have formed her, and figure out how to wield what’s left?

Caprice is simultaneously a capsule of Hogg’s earliest cinematic obsessions and an energetic mission statement for her later films.

The collaboration at the center of Caprice began, fittingly, with a rejection of formative structures. Hogg and Swinton met when they were 10 and bonded over their mutual hatred of their Kent private school West Heath, designed to sculpt young minds for lives of privilege. A decade and a half later, both their paths were set in motion after Hogg struck up a friendship with Derek Jarman, a model of a sui generis artist if there ever was one; he mentored Hogg and loaned her her very first Super-8 camera. After appearing in Hogg’s student exercises, Swinton leapt to her feature debut in Caravaggio (1986) and a vital creative alliance with Jarman.

It’s possible to map a moment in cultural history onto Hogg’s art-school days—and her films are still shaped by her friendships from this period, notably Exhibition (2013), which stars Slits guitarist Viv Albertine—but her actual filmmaking shirks alignment with any “school” or “movement.” Caprice may be tethered in its time period through its soundtrack, twinkly and reverby in a way that could never escape the ’80s, but it remains at an arm’s length from any associated scene. Lucky may be made over as a fashion model soon after she lands in the pages of Caprice, but rather than fit in, she stays on the periphery of any spectacle that she encounters, whether it be a cliquish, haute-couture party or a centerpiece New Wave dance sequence. Hogg’s later features also create this sensation of being an outsider looking in. By chiseling away the contextual edges of scenes, Hogg affords her characters a certain privacy; we may not have all the background details at hand, but we can usually feel out the emotional contours with a rich, wordless precision.

As early as Caprice, Hogg is clearly inquisitive about how all of that context amounts to a person. Instead of halting at a simple critique of commodity culture, Hogg wonders what attracts us to it, and how we might alternatively scratch that itch—how to mold oneself, rather than be molded. So she sends Lucky to find out for herself, and like Alice the looking glass, she explores the larger-than-life insides of the magazine. She scales a grand staircase made of Caprice’s pages, then hopscotches through deliriously designed vignettes: photoshoots, perfume ads, music reviews. Hogg packs the film full of loving homages to her influences, the films that made her want to direct. At the time, she was drawn to fusions of pop color with social critique, as embodied by Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) and Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return (1979); some of the matte-painted, handwriting-embossed, papier-mâché sets suggest the sculpture parks of Niki de Saint Phalle. On paper, Hogg’s pop-musical structure might seem tongue-in-cheek, or perhaps akin to Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties (also 1986), but Caprice exudes an old-school earnestness, as well as an affection for golden-age musicals and Technicolor vistas. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) looms particularly large; when Lucky dons a satin-red pair of pointe-laced heels, she has unwittingly stepped into an ad for Manolo Blahniks.

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Caprice (1986)

Lucky may not be torn between two suitors, but as she moves through the magazine, she finds herself at odds with her desires. A roguish male model in black-tie attire seduces her, only to shill an expensive fur coat (his name? “Douglas Furbanks”). When she introduces herself to the Billy Idol-ish pop star Billy Pez, he euphemistically—no exaggeration—tells her to off herself. In the former encounter, mutual attraction is deceptive, and she’s merely a vessel to be advertised to; in the latter, her affinity for a pop star is cynically disparaged, a reminder that she’s nothing but a buyer boosting his Billboard ranking. Desiring a place in this culture is foolish, for all relationships here are transactional and surface-level. But where can Lucky go after she rejects the conventional path? Hogg’s protagonists are often rearranging these puzzle pieces: Anna in Unrelated (2007) is in erratic disarray as her marriage fractures; and in Archipelago (2010), Edward acts out against his family while gripped by a rich-kid quarter-life crisis. Some answer might be found in the peculiar autonomy Hogg allows her characters, which is often eccentric and defies explanation. In Exhibition, the artist D (Albertine) uses her work to create a new way of being—carnal, earthy, gestural—and, with her marriage gone sexually stale, develops a performance emulating Bernini’s sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Though her process is solitary, she wants, in the end, to be seen—more deeply, erotically than in ordinary life.

Hogg takes Caprice and refashions it into something else altogether in The Souvenir: Part II (2021). Decades later, the short’s key vignettes are reimagined as part of her stand-in Julie’s thesis film, now starring Swinton Byrne in her mother’s red shoes. But unlike Hogg’s real-life experience of bombing out, this screening is a triumph for Julie, to the point that its warm reception feels like a dream sequence. Up to this point, Hogg has put Julie through the wringer with skeptical advisers. Really, their disapproval and Julie’s success—however sensationalized—are one and the same, since Caprice hinges on a rejection of empty adulation. It makes sense that, fired up by a revisit, Hogg would follow Lucky’s advice and steer The Souvenir into a new statement of conviction.

Chloe Lizotte is the digital editorial manager at MUBI Notebook. She writes on film, new media, and comedy for Reverse Shot, Vulture, and other outlets.

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Joanna Hogg and Tilda Swinton on the set of Caprice (1986)