" Never trust a woman who whistles for her own cabs "
— Woody Allen, Curse of the Jade Scorpion

MRQE Top Critic

Moulin Rouge

Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

Everybody comes to the Moulin Rouge

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Palm Pictures hit paydirt when it dug into the pasts of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham. The resulting DVDs, released under The Directors Label, featured the brilliant early works of unknown talents who would later become major influences in film. The Directors Label continues to dig for hidden gems with The Work of Director Stéphane Sednaoui.

Early in his photography career, Stéphane Sednaoui hit the big time when he made a video of the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing their Blood Sugar Sex Magik song “Give it Away” while slathered with silver paint and glitter. He keyed their pumped-up punk-reggae sound to imagery that added to the band’s youth and tribal energy and in one fell swoop made the band more visible to the whole world.

Sednaoui’s success with the Chili Peppers opened the door for his music-video work with other bands: U2, Björk, Alanis Morissette, Garbage, and Tricky. Interviews with Sednaoui and the musicians give us more insight into this engaging young director.

Sednaoui has worked as a photographer in fashion and journalism and many of his music videos have a very stylized, photographic quality as a result. They all tell — or at least suggest — elaborate stories as backdrops for the characters he creates. You can see serendipitous imagery in Sednaoui’s choices. He makes juxtapositions that work with the songs, despite his admission that when coming up with the concepts for his videos, he never listens to the “text.”

Videos

Stephane Sednaoui works in mysterious ways
Stephane Sednaoui works in mysterious ways

Although Sednaoui’s music video concepts are not quite as playful and mind-boggling as those in the videos of Michel Gondry, another directors featured on the Directors Label, his videos are intriguing for their imagery and for the performances he elicits from a diverse array of popular musicians. In the videos featuring Björk and those with REM’s Michael Stipe, you can see how Sednaoui works with the performers until they can do nothing but be themselves.

Not all the performers he works with, however, can pull this off. Self-consciousness pervades the almost-explicit Mirwais’ videos and actress/director Sofia Coppola’s performance as a druggie chick in the Black Crowes’ “Sometimes Salvation” video.

Some of the director’s favorite effects involve lighting up parts of people’s bodies. He uses luminous or phosphorescent paint on people so they glow and pulse and flow in interesting ways, a clumsier but appropriately human version of the chromed-body effect in Terminator 2. But my own favorite in this collection of videos is “For Real,” with Tricky singing about life as a pop star among mobsters in Chinatown with an animation effect that is beguiling to watch, but nowhere near as beguiling as Tricky’s character in the video.

Other Stuff — Interviews and Q & A

Excellent and humorous editing elevates some of the special features. Flea, of the Chili Peppers, talks about working with Sednaoui: “He is a very sort of emotional, dramatical, flamboyant video-type director character. A lot of guys are more studious and cerebral about it, and he’s very emotional about it, and getting really excited, which is nice.” The camera cuts to Sednaoui, often animated but here looking extremely studious and cerebral.

From the interviews, we learn that Björk had danced on a truckbed for nine hours in one day. And Stipe recalls another video shoot as eight hours of “calisthenic” writhing, with much of that time spent balanced along a two-by-four-inch beam painted red. But Stipe has nothing but admiration for Sednaoui, much like the other interviewees.

In the Interviews we get to know the director better. He has an endearingly humble personality. His first attempt at a short film bears the following disclaimer: “The purpose of showing my first short film is to give hope to anyone that has failed (like I did) on his or her first attempt. It took me 3 viewings to remember the story.” (And it’s pretty awful.) At an NYU question-and-answer session, superimposed titles correct his often less-than-accurate information as he speaks: “I was in this little town in Morocco...” Title: “Fez: Population 500,000.”

Sednaoui tells entertaining stories on the Interviews segment, like the one about his dislike of Mariah Carey’s music. “I like her voice, but I don’t like her music,” he says, but when he first heard her he tried to give her CD a fair listen. One night he listened to it, and concluded, “No, this isn’t for me.” But the next morning he ripped a copy of what he thought was Carey’s CD and listened to the copy over the course of the day. “No, wait,” he thought. “This is pretty good!” So when he got home he picked up the phone, all ready to call Mariah’s people and propose a video with her, but this feeling that “something weird was happening” came over him and he stopped. Sednaoui went to the CD player but the one he’d copied turned out to be a Queen Latifah album. So he never did a video for Carey.

When Bono says of Sednaoui, “He’s much cooler than anyone in his videos,” his compliment is suffused with enough raw jealousy of the charming Frenchman’s allure that you can tell he truly means it. The material bears it out, revealing Sednaoui as a curious and funny person.

Short Films

The four short films included are: “Reve Reche,” his failed attempt at a first film; an animation inspired by Björk’s song “Army of Me”; a 12-minute short film layering a story about the seamy lives of a few young hustlers with Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” as the soundtrack, including a walk-on by Reed himself; and my least favorite of his films for its extremely abstract existentialism, “Acqua Natasa.”

The most vivid among these films is “Walk on the Wild Side,” Sednaoui goes where the material takes him; the sex scenes and full-frontal nudity here would make this video collection a poor holiday gift for a preteen. From the crotch shots in the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the staged orgy for Mirwais (which has some of the theatrical creepiness of Eyes Wide Open), many of Sednaoui’s themes and images border on explicit.

Booklet

The 56-page booklet contains only Sednaoui’s photographs from the sets of various video shoots and some of the storyboards for those music videos. They are a fun historical artifact, but the lack of text makes it difficult to locate detailed information about the videos and their production. You’re better off watching the Interviews feature and the video credits on the DVD if you want hard data.

Picture and Sound

This DVD’s picture and sound quality show off all the beauty Sednaoui seeks in his work. You get the grit and glam of the Chili Peppers’ grainily filmed “Give it Away,” alongside the fluid fire and Moroccan mosaics of U2’s “Mysterious Ways.” His black-and-white videos are especially gorgeous to watch.

Overall

Beyond his skill at setting scenes, Sednaoui’s expertise is in getting out of the way of the performers and the song. The musicians clearly trust him enough to let him get close; each of the best performers here reveals something personal. The videos may be contrived, or about other characters, but the best ones all capture something elemental about that person or group. When The Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Michael Stipe, and Björk truly throw themselves into these performances with abandon, Sednaoui shows us what makes them great performers.