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Three Fittings: High Glamour and Low Spies in "Allied"

[New Series! Three Fittings will celebrate costume design in the movies. The number is necessary self-restraint for we love the art of costuming too much. We kicked off last week with La La Land icymi.]

Allied begins strongly with a weirdly lulling quiet parachute descent into the Moroccan dessert. Moments later the man from the sky is all wrapped up a stone blue headscarf, his face obscured, presumably to protect it from the sun and sand. This obscures the movie star within which is never a good thing so the scarf loses its functionality almost immediately. It's suddenly an accessory rather than a tool, just another texture and a complimentary color to the fetching earth tone ensemble on a ridiculously handsome man walking toward a car far off in the distance.

Who knew that an empty road in the desert could double as a runway?

Costume designer Joanna Johnston clues you in immediately that you're looking at a movie that's aiming for the glamorous illusion of Old Hollywood...

Look One
Our man in the desert is Canadian Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and he's there to meet his pretend wife, a French operative named Marianne (Marion Cotillard). Max is told that she'll be in purple, "look for the hummingbird." Johnston delivers both but in ways that are both Big Movie obvious -- the hummingbird isn't a dress detail or a piece of jewelry but is unmissably hand painted on a satin shawl -- and subtly different than expected as the purple is closer to indigo; Cotillard delivers the same double with a Big Movie moment head tilt to the camera followed by a subtle twist. The actress lets the costume deliver all the glamour and mystery (that cutout is perfect for a spy, the dress looking so much more modest from the other side) and she merely delivers the acting, Marianne's acting that is, as she smiles with authentic joy upon spotting her fake husband.

As it turns out the hummingbird was actually Cotillard's idea. She'd read about a spy who went by that alias in the war. It's not surprising that she and Johnston inspired each other as her character arrives fully formed, glamorous and mysterous, yes, but also weirdly guileless even in her deceit. Marianne tells Max that she survives by keeping the emotions real. 

Look Two.
Later in the film before their deadliest mission as fake-marrieds they have a cagey heart-to-heart about dreams of the future. The choice of matching white outfits is perfect. The only color in their lives in this moment is their imaginations. Max talks about a "faraway" and "green" ranch he wants to live on. He expects a similar confession from Marianne. Cotillard merely gives the movie its best luminously sad closeup and utters what sounds exactly like the truth from this professional liar:

After the war, it won't matter where I am.

Brad and Marion are both such beautiful movie stars that Johnston, in interviews, cedes much of the credit but her work is the movie's most memorable looker. She's even thought through the disrobing. In the hot sex scene that follows, you can't help but be reminded of earlier scenes, even if only subliminally. When Max's shirt comes off a cross you forgot she gave him lays across his chest. When her dress opens up you're reminded of the other time she "tested" him by unbuttoning her shirt as she was wearing the same style slip underneath. 

Look Three.
The movie's showstopping look is the light blue satin evening gown Marianne wears on their deadly mission, the act one climax. Both movie stars are dressed to the nines (Brad in a black tux). Cotillard's gown is watery fluid as befits her nature but you still can't imagine her murdering anyone in it. It's so satin and feminine that it could even be mistaken for a nightgown with a shift in context. It's pure sex even though the actress is almost fully covered from neck to toe. And Johnston had to design it so that Cotillard could run in it, too! Watching Marion run in that dress holding a machine gun is an incongruous thrill. This dress had to bring the house down and it does (though, yes, the spray of bullets helps). 

Unfortunately Allied is what you might call a frontloaded film. Its first 45 minutes are so strong and movie-movie entertaining that the end result feels like a throwback classic that could have been... but wasn't. Unfortunately this is also true of the costumes, which is why everything I've selected comes from the film's first half. Back in London, the clothes are (purposefully) less elegant and eye-grabbing and even a little less inventive about their riffs on movie cliches (red for guilt, really?) though they're still beautiful.

So beautiful.

Beauty isn't everything but it's a lot in a big studio war time adventure. I kept thinking back to one of this couple's earliest conversations when Marianne wants to know what Max has heard about her before their meeting. 

Max: He said you were beautiful. And good.

Marianne: Being good at what we do isn't very beautiful."

Marianne isn't always lying. When she says this she's notably stripped bare, about to don another stylish dress to sell her fake identity.

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Reader Comments (12)

Loving this new series, Nat - keep it up!

And yes, the costumes in this movie were gorgeous. Agree that the first half was much stronger than the back half, costuming and otherwise.

February 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

thanks Lylee... it always feels vulnerable to do commitments like series so i appreciate the comment. I really wanted to choose a costume from the back half but nothing spoke to me like these others.

February 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Even though I haven't seen the movie I love reading about the costumes. Such a fun series.

February 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

love this series, ... and the costumes in Allied are gorgeous... one of my favorite nominations of the year.

February 2, 2017 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

In an interview, Johnston said that they had to decide what to call the colour of the first dress, since the contact has to say it. The British called it "midnight blue" and the Americans "purple". The second evening dress, she calls "sea foam green".

I looked up her credits to see what else she had done, and she did the great Man From Uncle costumes last year. And she did Death Becomes Her!

This is a fun series. Thanks for thinking of it and carrying it out.

February 3, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Great new idea for a series! Any celebration of film costuming is always welcomed by me.

These are all lovely standout pieces that I'm sure having Marion and Brad wear them didn't hurt and JJ is incredibly talented and has been working since the late 80s without much recognition but... I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm just glad Robert Zemeckis is making movies with real people again.

February 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

This is my pick for best costume design since The Dressmaker got the shaft and Joanna Johnston is long overdue for an Oscar. Jackie will probably be the one that will win the Oscar for it's won the Satellite and the Critic's Choice Awards.

February 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hintergardt

Love this new series!

February 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

Oof I did not like this movie, but I am adoring this new series.

February 3, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Costume design is the most successful element of Allied. I'm glad it gets deserving Oscar nominaton. Everything Marion wore was gorgeous. The third look you mentioned took breath away (literally. And it is the best scene). I also adore the her blue-white (pleated skirt) combo.

February 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJija

If only the film were worthy of the costumes!

February 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Excellent items from you, man. I've understand your stuff previous to and you're just too great putlockers movie 2016 

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