After three decades of working in the fashion industry, Tom Ford understands the power of a provocative image — and the opening-credits sequence of his new movie Nocturnal Animals may be the designer-filmmaker’s most controversial creative choice yet. A revenge thriller toplined by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals opens not on its stars but with a montage of nude, obese women dancing in slow motion as glitter flutters all around them. It’s eventually revealed that we’re watching video art on display at a gallery opening engineered by wealthy, disaffected art maven Susan (played by Adams), but the attention-grabbing sequence left a bad taste in the mouths of some viewers here at the Toronto Film Festival, where the film had its North American premiere this week.
“I’d rather Tom Ford didn't use fat nude bodies as avant garde gimmicks until he casts a similarly sized person as a person,” tweeted NPR’s Linda Holmes, while writer Jen McDonnell liked the film but still had qualms about “the fat-shaming opening credits BS.” Indeed, in a film full of movie stars at their most lithe and toned, the sequence stands out all the more. Yesterday, I sat down with Ford and asked him to explain what he had in mind.
“The whole thing is a bit of a fairy tale, and they’re sort of the witches leading you in,” Ford began. “They’re the Valkyrie in a sense, casting a spell on the entire film. So there were a lot of different reasons for that sequence, and not least of all, it grabs the audience at the very beginning and gets them into the story.”
Though nearly all the art in the film was on loan from real-world artists — “I don’t like a movie that’s about the art world that doesn’t have real art,” said Ford, “because you can always tell” — the director shot the nude women himself, adopting the imaginary persona of a foreign artist with an axe to grind. “I’ve lived in Europe for the last 27 years, so I thought, What do I want to say if I’m having a gallery show in America?” mused Ford. “Politics being what they are right now, I want to make a statement about America. And I remembered that great poster that I had hanging in my room when I was a kid, when I thought I was straight, of Farrah Fawcett in that red bathing suit. America was always tan, beautiful teeth, tits and ass. So, guess what? I want to talk about America today: Gluttonous, overfed, aging, sad, tired.”
That all changed when Ford showed up to the nude shoot “and fell in love with these women,” he said, admitting, “I actually felt guilty that that had been my original intention. I found them so beautiful, so joyful, and so happy to be there. They were so uninhibited, and I realized that actually, they were a microcosm of what the whole film was saying. They had let go of what our culture had said they’re supposed to be, and because of that, they were so totally free. This is what’s restricting Susan. She’s being who she thinks she needs to be: I need to live this way, I need to look like that.”
In the end, it’s one of Ford’s favorite sequences for exactly that reason. “It certainly wasn’t fat-shaming — if anything, it’s a celebration of the beauty of their bodies, and a challenge to what we think of beauty,” he said. But doesn’t Ford help perpetuate conventional standards of beauty through his career as a fashion designer?
“I do, I do,” he said, finally. “And I’m very torn about that.”