On the joys of being evil in Disney’s Cruella
I don't like Disney movies, but I do love a good villain. Especially villains with two-tone hair and cigarette holders, whose source of evil is a love of fashion. Cruella de Vil is the ultimate fashion-villain, whose swashbuckling fur coats make her the subject of revulsion and fascination in equal measure. Step forward Cruella, the latest in a line of movies giving the empathetic backstory to villainous characters. The idea is to humanise them, to show that even villains were nice guys and gals once too. The Joker? Just a shy guy who got bullied for his nervous laugh. Cruella de Vil? A misunderstood punk with a flair for fashion.
Born Estella, 2021’s Cruella de Vil is at pains to repress her evil side. A polite but ambitious fashion nerd with red hair and glasses, she unleashes Cruella on the world only after confronting the traumas of her childhood. (If there’s one thing these revisionist retellings have in common it’s trauma—some kind of external force that can be blamed for making the villains how they are.) Contrary to what we might think, Estella/Cruella actually loves dogs, but finds herself an enemy in a pack of snarling, snapping Dalmatians controlled by her boss, fashion tycoon and the only actual villain in Cruella, the Baroness.
As is befitting (though not inevitable) for a movie with a budget of £140 million, Cruella has many draws. A star cast, for starters: Emma Stone, with her darting eyes, has the perfect cartoonish face for a live-action flick; she brings grit and empathy to the role. Emma Thompson is, of course, formidable as the Baroness, with her regal glamour and 9-minute power naps. I also enjoyed the portrayals of Cruella’s motley crew of London street hustlers—Oliver Twist-style mischief-makers with an array of dogs, large and small, who have uncanny lifespans and keen pickpocketing skills. Cruella also picks up an effete boho fashion gay along the way (step forward John McCrea as vintage dealer Artie, heralded as Disney’s “first LGBTQ character”), cementing her place as the ultimate Disney fag hag.
And that brings us to the clothes. Set in the Swinging Sixties—or perhaps the 70s punk era, it can’t quite decide—Cruella is a rollicking homage to London fashion. Vivienne Westwood is a key reference of course, but there are also some very Alexander McQueen moments: the Baroness getting the welders in to unveil her runway show; Cruella stitching (spoiler alert) cocoons inside a couture gown, infesting the runway space with moths. Honestly, the actual costume design itself isn’t my favourite—too gimmicky, too ‘done’—but the film excels in theatricality. Cruella setting herself aflame in a DragRace-style reveal at the black and white ball, bursting out into sensational red. Cruella rocking up to the gala in a garbage truck, unleashing reams and reams of silk gowns (trashbags forever!). Cruella sending legions of black-and-white-haired bouffants to a soireé – a kind of matricide by way of multiplication; Cruellaism as a contagious disease, as Cruellavirus. These are all moments I lived for.
In a scene where Estella/Cruella falls asleep in a window display, niche fashion fans might have picked up the reference to punk performance artist and fashion designer Colette, who brought her ‘sleep’ performances to sites including Fiorucci, New York in 1978. Not at all an obvious reference, so I applauded that. Another “Easter egg” I relished: a scene where Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat briefly appears onscreen. Tallulah is reported to be a key inspiration for the Cruella archetype in the original 1961 cartoon version of 101 Dalmatians: husky-voiced, tempestuous, ageing partygirl Tallulah in her late years of abundant whiskey and cigarette consumption, hurtling around London in a fur coat and a Bentley. (This Vanity Fair piece will tell you the full backstory – and also explain why I have Tallulah’s face tattooed on my right forearm.)
In this light, the decision to set Cruella in the 60s/70s seems an odd one. Cruella, to me, is so clearly an ageing pre-war glamour girl, a film noir heroine with a gilt make-up compact, red lipstick and whiskey breath, trying to claw back her vanishing youth and beauty by donning the skins of newborn animals. As well as Tallulah, she’s made in the mould of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Recasting her as a punk is aesthetically exciting on one level, and brings great eyeliner opportunities, but doesn’t fit her narrative arc. Punk heiresses don’t grow up to be Dalmatian killers. They grow up to be like Vivienne Westwood—culturally insensitive, out-of-touch, classist, but vegan.
There again, does Cruella 2.0 even wear a fur coat? She makes fashion headlines for donning Dalmatian, before revealing it was all a rouse—and this is where Cruella falls short. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for Dalmatricide. To do something so evil as to attempt to skin 99 Dalmatian puppies and turn them into a fur coat, you’ve gotta be a pretty fucked up bitch, but fucked up makes for a good story and that’s the whole sales pitch for Cruella. The movie tries to dodge the question by assuring us that a) the Dalmatians were the evil ones and b) she didn’t actually skin them anyway, she just pretended to. The whole film is an attempt to construct a backstory for a villainous character, to explain how she became so evil, only to then admit that she isn’t so evil or villainous in the first place.
The irony, of course, is that queers, aesthetes and weirdos (who I’m proud to be among) glamourise Cruella de Vil precisely because she was evil, regardless of our IRL feelings towards the flaying of cute puppies. I love black and white pups, but I also love a cartoon of a chain-smoking heiress with botched hair and a ballgown trying to kill them. Bring me a Cruella swaddled in reptile skin, like the early sketches of her. Bring me a Cruella driven by the feminine fear of ageing. Goddamit—bring me a Cruella who smokes!! Humanising Cruella doesn’t make her more compelling as a character, it just makes her a garden variety white liberal girlboss. Annoying, but not necessarily evil.
Cruella is in (gasp!) cinemas now, or can be streamed online via Disney Plus. But please, go to a cinema!!
TIME FOR AN AMARO?
Quick-fire recommendations to help you digest
🎶 A bunch of remixes just dropped of Marie Davidson/L’Œil Nu’s ‘Renegade Breakdown’. They’re good, but I’m mostly taking it as an excuse to revisit the original album, which is brilliant—a real oddball record, mixing techno, pop, funk, electro, 80s synth bits and chavvy choruses. I somehow glossed over it when it came out last year. Maybe I was distracted by…a national pandemic or something? Anyway, I’m listening now and I love it.
👁 I’ve been desk-bound all week, so I’ll take the opportunity to plug a something I’ve had the honour and pleasure of working on instead: Woman in the Machine (co-created by VISUAL Carlow and Carlow Arts Festival) an exhibition and digital programme exploring technology through a feminist lens, via art, electronic music, film, performance. You can access digital-native works online, including a magnificent virtual sculpture by Sharon Phelan and a lush mini-album by Jennifer Moore (aka Dreamcycles). There’s also been a great programme of talks in the VR version of the exhibition (the future! exciting!), which you can watch back on YouTube: discussing NFTs, Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, women in electronic music (here and here) and digital architecture. If you have a VR headset you can also visit this ‘Altspace’ VR version of the exhibition for a limited time.
📚 A Yorkshire gal sitting atop a rooftop in Highbury, I’ve been feeling very meta reading Anna Glendenning’s An Experiment in Leisure, a debut novel about a Yorkshire gal alienated by her North London life. Exploring class and sexuality, it’s garnered cover quotes from the unofficial Queen of the North (Maxine Peake) and a drag queen (Tom “Crystal” Rasmussen) so you know it must be good. I’ll report back when I’ve read more!
As always, leave your own culture recs in the comments. Ciao! xo