Thoughts on Cruella (2021, Craig Gillespie)
I watched this last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has plenty of obvious flaws, the biggest being that it doesn’t make any sense as a prequel. But, as a standalone film it is worth watching.
As great as the music selection was, it was probably over the top. As audience goers, we all know that movies are mostly about money, and we know a lot about how the money works in movies (it constantly gets reported on). It is a separate, interesting question to consider how this affects an audiences appreciation of art. Anyway, I, like a lot of others I imagine, spent less time actually enjoying the music and more time anxiously trying to figure out how much it actually cost to licence it. That said, the inclusion of I Wanna Be Your Dog and Sympathy for the Devil were perfect and worth every penny.
The CGI dogs were also a bit annoying.
It has already been compared to Joker (2019) and I think that comparison is appropriate. There are important differences though.
Joker is obviously a far more intense and violent movie. There is little ambiguity at the level of character. Joker is more like a force of nature, a storm. The emotions and psychology are complex, yes, but not ambiguous. This lack of ambiguity - lack of ‘goodness’ in the old-fashioned, moralistic sense - highlights Cruella’s innocence and not necessarily in a good way. Since we are supposed to view Cruella as ‘vicious’, ‘bad’, etc. her innocence is more of a weakness in character than a strength. Yes, she does break free from her petit-bourgeoise identity (“tea at Regent’s Park”, private schools, etc.) when she ditches her ‘Estella’ self and her adoptive mother to flirt with ’evil’, but she also avoids the truly dark parts of her character - skinning dogs for clothes.
Yet, if Joker shows up Cruella for it’s relative tameness, Cruella also highlights a flaw with Joker. Both movies share a common thread - the link between socially-defined ’evil’, aesthetic expression and iconography. Both Cruella and Joker become ‘fashion’ icons (there are scenes in both movies where the ‘crowd’ has adopted their respective personas). Both are out for revenge against a class system which they feel has left them behind and failed to recognise their genius. Both tread a fine line between revolution and resentment. Through Cruella, we see how Joker is also a movie about fashion, and about the cult of personality that appreciation of fashion seems to engender.
The worst flaw of both movies is how they co-opt actual, historical images of class struggle to produce their own brands of visual pleasure. In Cruella it is counter-cultural movements like punk and no-wave of the 60s, 70s and 80s, in Joker it is the image of street protests. However, this is nothing new in the history of cinema. Mainstream cinema has always struggled to represent the ‘masses’ since we are so used to focusing in on individuals. Think of The Dreamers (2003) - we spend the whole movie submerged in the bohemian decadence of the threesome, and in the final moments are thrust into the ‘street’ - actual history - which in that movie is represented in corny slow-motion and close-ups of the main character’s faces as they are swept up in the ‘authentic’ moment.
There is certainly an argument to be made for the revolutionary power of fashion, but I have doubts about the revolutionary power of personality. I think revolutions must necessarily be iconoclastic, lest they run the risk of populism and things like Stalinism/Maoism. At the same time, there is always an aesthetic element to every mass movement - especially in modern, media-drive times. Images, videos captured by by-standers (like in the case of George Floyd), songs, graffiti, revolutionary personalities (Bobby Sands, Che Guevara, etc.), and so on, always seem to have more power to drive social change than abstract arguments. In this sense, Cruella and Joker are tapping into an important element of revolutionary process. Yet, it is also important to think about resistance that isn’t image-driven, that isn’t ’televised’.
I did begin this by saying I enjoyed Cruella, and that was true. I enjoyed both Cruella and Joker a great deal, and I think that is because they enjoyed themselves. That is probably their greatest character strength - the capacity for joy, even in the face of oppression.