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Barbie (2023, Greta Gerwig) review… but I haven’t seen Barbie yet

Lately talking about movies has become talking about Barbie (2023, Greta Gerwig). People always ask each other if they’ve seen it and what they think about it. The same happens with Oppenheimer (2023, Christopher Nolan) but, as a person who has not seen either one or the other, I noticed that Barbie gets people talking a lot more. Maybe it’s because of all the advertising before and after the release, but it’s more likely because the whole thing became a massive pop phenomenon, which has taken up spaces very far from the field of cinema.

When I listen to people talking about it, friends or classmates, I notice that, even when they didn’t like the film, they discuss a list of ‘iconic’ scenes. Everyone somehow has their own personal list of scenes they can’t forget. Usually, when they start to discuss, they ask each other if they were both stunned by Margot Robbie when she etc. etc. At that point I admit that I try to think about something else, since I don’t want spoilers…

So far, I’ve heard more expectations disappointed than satisfied and the criticism I heard more often is that the movie is too superficial and doesn’t deal with certain topics taking up the right amount of space. The tendency of people who think this is to dismiss it as a failure, a bold but ultimately ineffective attempt. From the outside, I had a very different idea of the situation and I think that Greta Gerwig, the director, is a genius.

Greta Gerwig on the set of Barbie (Credits: Warner Bros.)

To demonstrate this, however, we must take a step back and watch a Gerwig’s interview back in 2020. At the time, Vogue asked her an interview for the 73 questions miniseries on YouTube. That’s a successful format in which Joe Sabia wanders into the house of a famous woman and, while they have a coffee or she prepares to leave and take an intercontinental flight, he asks her a series of questions about her life and personal taste. The questions usually go from a serious to a joking tone and the women have very little time to answer (the final product has no cuts: it’s a continuous shot that usually lasts 8-9 minutes and the total questions, as the title indicates, are 73 , so 9 questions per minute on average). It’s a very dynamic format, which gives the audience an idea of familiarity, first of all because it’s filmed in the interviewee’s home and she’s doing everyday actions (such as preparing a coffee or apologizing for a pile of books on the counter) and also because the questions are asked in a pressing manner, causing haste, giving the idea that the person is in a rush and busy with other actions and, as a consequence, giving more sincere answers.

The truth is that the interviews are made to promote an upcoming film or music album and the houses are presented as if they came directly from the pages of a specialized magazine (so much so that indeed a well-known magazine, Architectural Digest, has a similar series on YouTube, Open doors, with famous people’s house tours). The interviewed has probably rehearsed the tour with their publicists a few times and have been instructed on what to say and how to say it (and hopefully not repeat Dakota Johnson’s mistake with the limes). All this context is useful to analyze Greta Gerwig’s interview and the idea of herself that she wants to convey in those sixteen minutes of chat. A very precise idea, it must be said.

The video dates back to January 30, 2020 and has clear advertising purposes. Little Women, a film adaptation by Gerwig of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, was released in the United States on 25 December 2019, but was distributed in many countries overseas starting from 30 January 2020. Except for the first question, the initial two minutes are only about that movie and, in general, Gerwig uses the film throughout the interview to answer the more technical questions about her work as a director. In total, out of 73 questions, 11 concern the movie directly and at least as many talk about it indirectly, because the conversation often focuses on the profession of a movie director.

The first thing that catches the eye, for those who know the series, is that Greta Gerwig’s video was not shot in her home, but in Sony’s Studios in LA. Before her, only Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, had been filmed in her office, in the magazine’s New York headquarters, as if the public could follow her on a normal Monday morning (or in a spin-off of The Devil Wears Prada). The conversation begins indeed with a question about why the chat is being filmed there and the answer is that Gerwig has to go to a Sony’s screening and will give the interviewer just as long as it takes to get to the right studio. It’s a beginning that already says a lot: it presents the director as really busy, in the middle of a break. Sometimes you can even see her hurrying the interviewer after they stopped in one place for too long or even steal a golf card to go faster.

Since the series was created to show the protagonists’ homes, it’s striking that the video is set elsewhere and suggests that it means something. Also, the other interviewees in this series often try to be relatable, talking about aspects of their private lives that show how they are, after all, real people. In Gerwig’s video that element is more in how she presents herself, in the way she responds, how she looks into the camera, how she gesticulates and gets confused when she speaks too quickly. Greta is a woman like many others, who binge watches Love Island UK and has seen Singing in the Rain a thousand times. At the same time. she precisely outlines her ambitions. Sometimes she responds with irony, making an irreverent joke, but if we look carefully we can see that she’s always kinda hiding something, a very specific vision. For example, when the interviewer asks her if she would make another film based on a book, she replies that she would like to adapt the Bible… but from the point of view of all women.

The references to her private life are minimal and all at the end: at minute twelve she’s asked what she observed during her first year of motherhood and Gerwig makes a general observation about newborns. Shortly afterwards, when she mentions her partner, she calls him by his first and last name, Noah Baumbach, without specifying their romantic relationship, introducing him only as her collaborator. She mentions him twice in total, at minute thirteen and shortly after (calling him just ‘Noah’), for the rest, the interview talks only about her, not as a woman, but precisely as a director. It seems that the idea behind it is to give Gerwig the credibility of a job that is usually a male one.

Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan on the set of Lady Bird (Credits: Pinterest)

The interviewer is full of questions about what’s the best scene she has ever directed, what’s the most difficult aspect to capture on camera, what are her future plans. She answers in an articulate and passionate way, showing that she’s thought a lot about those things. An important moment to get something out of the chat is when she’s asked a few simple questions about who her favorite authors are. Gerwig outlines a precise constellation: Virginia Wolf, Joan Didion, Jane Austen. Her answers show she knows the great female authors of the past, but she’s also able to see their weaknesses (she criticizes Austen for the expectations she created in her teenage life regarding men and relationships) or use them as a basis to say something to the audience of the present (especially with her Alcott’s adaptation, Little Women). Her project, it’s clear, goes beyond the promotion of her latest movie and this can be seen very well in three key moments. The first one is when she talks about Virginia Wolf:

<what I love about her… so many things… I love her writing, but also, she was included in the canon because she was just better than anyone… And I feel like they thought ‘Oh, well, that lady… she’s a lady, but she’s really great.>

Later when she’s asked why it’s important for her to have a certain style in the way she dresses when working as a director, she says:

<to communicate all of my power (chuckling)>

Finally, when she has to say what she would like to be asked more frequently in interviews:

<I would… I hope to get asked more… I mean it would to also correspond with my life. I hope somebody asked me ‘What does it feel, like, to win so many Oscars?’>.

She has a plan to greatness, a more or less veiled one, something that she’s pondering from afar in that moment, but which she sees as tangible and declares proudly at the end of the video, to answer the classic question about future projects:

<I’ll be writing a picture about Barbie. A Barbie picture.>

Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig on the set of Barbie (Credits: Pinterest)

To understand why this sixteen-minute video is so relevant to analyze what Greta Gerwig managed to do, I need to reconstruct the context. At the time, the director had already achieved a certain popularity, thanks to the success of her first solo feature film, Lady Bird, which in 2018 had received 5 Oscar nominations (best film, best director, best original screenplay, best leading actress and best supporting actress), without winning any. The film had grossed eight times the production costs, for an estimated total of more than 80 million dollars, and had marked Greta Gerwig’s transition from the environment of American indie cinema, where she started, to Hollywood; which brings us back to Little Women, produced by Columbia Picture, part of Sony Picture, one of the largest American production companies.

Timothée Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of Lady Bird (Credits: Pinterest)

Little Women had a budget of 40 million dollars, 30 more than Lady Bird, and grossed 218 million, an increase of 173% compared to the previous film. The work was fundamental in consolidating Gerwig’s position as a filmmaker on the American scene. In fact, although it was, as many said when it was about to be released, the last adaptation of a long series, it established itself on the market successfully. Women of all ages ran to see it (either because it was released on Christmas, or because they were huge fans of the book already) and the film received 6 Oscar nominations (best film, best leading actress, best supporting actress, best non-original screenplay, best costumes and best soundtrack), winning however only for best costumes.

Emma Watson, Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh on the set of Little Women (Credits: Pinterest)

If Lady Bird was made to speak to a more specific audience (and, let’s be honest, it spoke so frankly to it, that we almost saw Saoirse Ronan look into the camera like Fleabag), this other film had the potential to reach a much larger audience and was successful in doing so. The nostalgic element played a role at the box office for sure, in the choice of the theatrical release period. The film was released on December 25, 2019 in the United States, probably focusing on the fact that there was a part of the movie set during Christmas time (used indeed for a series of trailers that showed this would be the perfect film to watch during the holidays). Furthermore, the choice of the cast was also tempting and succeeded in a transversal way: you could see the movie with your aunt (who was a super fan of Meryl Streep), your best friend (who wanted to be born Emma Watson), your sister (in love with Timothée Chalamet), your mother (crazy for Laura Dern) and last but not least, you could pretend something else, but you’d have been there just for Louis Garrel (there was little to be done… she got it right for any of us). These were only the rehearsals for the ‘Barbie operation’, but they were fundamental both for Gerwig as a director (who, among other things, directed the movie during a pregnancy) and for the production companies as an investment.

polaroid of Emma Watson, Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen on the set of Little Women (Credits: Pinterest)

Regardless of all these, the truth is that the book itself is written for a very broad audience, from early childhood to adulthood. The story is about four very different sisters and every woman can recognize herself in one of them; just as she can see similarities between her own mother and the one of the story (a thing already present in Lady Bird which, not surprisingly, was supposed to be called Mothers and Daughters). I remember that when it came out some of my friends debated who-looked-like-who, also to see if their ideas had changed since they had read the book. Despite being set in the Nineteenth Century, it’s easy to find a piece of you in Jo, in Meg, in Amy and in Beth and Greta Gerwig did a movie to remind us that. A great choice, in terms of adaptation, consists in the fact that the protagonist of the film is played by Saoirse Ronan, a detail that creates a unique fil rouge with Lady Bird, where she played the main character as well. Ronan is for Gerwig what Jesse Eisenberg or Owen Wilson were for Woody Allen, an actor’s alter ego when someone who’s both a director and a actor wants to focus on the first part of the duo.

Greta on the set of Lady Bird (Credits: Pinterest)

An important issue in Greta Gerwig’s cinema is recognition. Even when she made her very first low-budget indie films, like Hannah takes the stairs (2007, Joe Swamberg) she wrote her characters with this idea. Critics already said back then her movies were about a generation and she herself acted in them and gave substance to those sensations. Gerwig indeed became famous as one of the best actresses of her generation, with performances such as that of 20th Century women (2016, Mike Mills). The combination of her career as an actress and that of a screenwriter was the key with which she managed to open the doors that led her to Barbie. Greta, with her characters, managed to be recognisable, visible, both as an actress and as a screenwriter. The union of these two aspects was fundamental: she had agency as an artist, she wasn’t just a performer. That put her in a dominant position within the industry.

Greta Gerwig dancing in 20th Century Women (Credits: Pinterest)

This is why Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach) will be studied in the future as a cornerstone of American indie cinema and a turning point in Gerwig’s (and Baumbach’s) career. Greta Gerwig is already in the canon with that film. The influence that her cinema has had and will have on an entire generation of filmmakers is already on the table. The vulnerability of her character, as well as some specific directorial choices, gave birth to a small masterpiece. Frances Ha is the highest point (so far at least) of the Gerwig-Baumbach artistic collaboration, which began with Greenberg (2010, Baumbach) and continued with Mistress America (2015, Baumbach) and White Noise (2022, Baumbach), ending with Barbie (2023, Gerwig) which he co-write. Both coming from the American indie cinema environment, the two met as actress and director, and then began writing screenplays together and achieved popularity more or less at the same time. Baumbach had a certain fame before collaborating with Gerwig, so much so that he had already worked with actresses like Nicole Kidman, but he achieved international success at the same time. This is demonstrated by the fact that the two showed up at the 2020 Oscar ceremony with 6 nominations each for separate projects.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (Credits: Pinterest)

The boost that the collaboration with Baumbach gave to Gerwig’s career is undeniable, but the opposite is also true. That said, Greta Gerwig is analyzable alone. Her work has maintained constants over time both in the themes and in the approach to them. The idea of giving space to a different representation of reality, of giving substance to experiences that had not yet found representation in cinema, whether indie or mainstream (with the exception of the work of Sofia Coppola), is what has remained constant since Hannah takes the stairs to Barbie. Gerwig worked for herself, but she worked for everyone, creating a space for different voices, questioning an all-male canon, in cinema as in literature (to return to the interview and the moment in which she talks about Virgina Wolf). It was not just about characters, but also about working figures in the sector. The space that she actually managed to create is undeniable: Barbie. Barbie is not ‘only’ the most profitable film of 2023, with more than one billion four hundred thousand dollars grossed, but a true pop culture phenomenon.

Greta Gerwig arrived in the cinema industry with some other young dreamers, making small films all improvised, and twenty years later we find her in triumph with the most successful film of the world. How did she do that? Remaining loyal to the idea of creating a space for recognition, for herself and for her audience, a place where a woman anywhere in the world and of any age could say that she understood what Greta Gerwig was trying to tell her. What more iconic object for this undertaking than the doll all women in the world had growing up with? I just find genius in this. Not to mention the fact that after such a phenomenon it’ll be much easier for a female director to find space in the industry. Many producers’ll want to exploit the wave of success of Barbie and will invest much more in stories that explore the dark side of the moon.

Greta Gerwig is Virginia Wolf: she’s a lady but she’s really great.

Costanza Rossi

Barbie (Credits: Pinterest)

analysis of the movie ’emma.’ (2020, by Autumn de Wilde)

Emma. is a readaptation of the novel by Jane Austen, already used as subject for several movies, including the iconic Clueless and a version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The story is about a young aristocrat, Emma Woodhouse, who lives with her father in a graceful country house and has no great entertainment, other than plotting engagements for her friends, which she believes to be her greatest talent.

After the marriage of her housekeeper, Emma decides that she’ll also find a husband for her new friend Harriet, who has the serious problem of an unknown father. Emma believes that her friend can still get a good marriage and wants to set her up with Mr. Elton, the vicar of their village. In order to do that, she makes her turn down the offer of another less wealthy guy (even if Harriet has a crush on him) and encourages her interest in the priest. This happens despite Mr. Knightley, neighbor and dear friend of Emma, is helping the other suitor to make his proposal to Harriet and has good reasons to believe that Mr. Elton is not interested in the union that Emma is prospecting for him.

The plot is very dense and there are many other characters, Emma plays with everyone as if she was dealing with a dollhouse: she lives in a bubble, made up of her village, and has no ambition to go somewhere else, mainly because plotting and orchestrating the lives of those around her makes her feel powerful and superior. The only one who stands up to her and would like her to use her talents in a less superb way is Mr. Knightley, otherwise Emma acts undisturbed, with even Harriet’s deepest admiration.

This version shows a year in Emma’s life, following the course of the seasons and perhaps, not surprisingly, it begins with autumn (since the director’s name is Autumn). This construction divides the plot into four acts, like a play, and emphasizes the peculiarities of each season, which are fundamental for the costumes and the characterization of the characters linked to them. Everyone’s style is indeed very personal and, as reported by the costume designer, in the case of Emma, the queen bee of the story, the best way to show it was to make her wear the perfect dress for every event, every day, in every season. Each season is associated to a specific color palette, so the temporal change implies the one of the clothes and underlines how Emma imposes herself in many subtle ways in the story.

Costume designer Alexandra Byrne (2007 Oscar winner for Elisabeth: The Golden Age) has created historically accurate pieces, which are inspired by paintings and images of the first fashion magazines, born in the Georgian era in which the film is set. Harriet, for example, has a sort of school’s uniform, characterized by a red cape, historically documented. Over the course of the story, the more she binds to Emma, the more she begins to absorb her style, following the fashion of the time, making explicit the relationship between them.

The costumes make us perceive, as it was confirmed by Anya Taylor-Joy, who played the main character, that the clothes were fundamental for the actors to create characters. This is central for Emma, who is very self-confident, aware that a certain dress is perfect for her and able to imperceptibly show it. For example, in the scene where she paints a portrait of Harriet to impress Mr. Elton, she wants to highlight her friend but she’s the center anyway. The vicar, indeed, tries not to look at her neckline, which is subtly accentuated by some kind of collar she wears.

One of the strengths of this work is that all departments have worked closely, creating a cohesive result. Some characters’ costumes, such as those of Mrs. Elton, were designed according to the set designers to give the idea of who was foreign to a certain environment and who was not. This is especially clear when Mrs. Elton visits Emma and her father in their mansion, because her orange dress stands out from the other furniture and clothes.

Talking about Emma’s house, it’s fair to spend some words about it: the crew looked for a place that was from the Georgian period and that had never been used for a movie before. For the director it was essential that everything was historically accurate, so the rooms were furnished in a meticulous way, giving them, for example, the original colors of the walls, which are almost never seen in period movie. Furthermore, the house had to be a sort of dollhouse in which the main character could plan all her plots, so each room was created under this directive, with a specific color that is increasingly bright (the living room is pastel green, the stairs almost bright blue. , etc).

Interesting thing: the way in which Emma and Mr. Knightley’s houses are portrayed makes them look like neighboring properties, also because in the story their owners are neighbors, but in reality those buildings are not that close. They are, in fact, about 86 miles away from each other and moreover Mr. Knightley’s property is famous, since it was used for the productions of The Crown and Pride and Prejudice (2005). Among other things, Pride and Prejudice shares with Emma. a scene where the guests take a tour of the house (coincidences?). Knightley’s walks cancel the real distance and restore that idea of familiarity between the characters, as well as a peculiarity of his person, which is modesty. He doesn’t flaunt his status (as Emma does) going to her house in a carriage, since the houses are (at least in the story) so close.

His walks are also a perfect example of the beautiful landscapes of the movie, which direct us to the theme of nature represented. Nature is brilliantly used as a metaphor, for example through a puntual choice of flowers in the greenhouse, so that, when Emma flirts with Churchill, she finds herself gathering buttercups, roses and jasmine, commonly related to love. As mentioned, everything in de Wilde’s film is meticulously verified on a historical level (even the breed of sheep that are seen grazing around), so it’s not surprising that the availability of flowers in a certain season and the landscapes are too. This was done to give a vision as close as possible to what Jane Austen must had in mind. In fact, the village where the characters shop and stroll is not far from the places originally conceived by the writer. Furthermore, the fact that the director is a photographer and she has an incredibly artistic look, makes each shot a small picture; if for the interiors this is achieved in symmetrical shots, for the exteriors the eye lost himself in the depth of focus.

a scene of Pride and Prejudice (2007) at Wilton House, Salisbury
a scene of Emma. (2020) at Wilton House, Salisbury

One of the most characterizing elements of the film is the music, which perfectly conveys the spirit of some moments. The soundtrack is partly composed specifically and partly taken from what were the listening at that time (Beethoven and Hayden, but also some songs of the folkloristic tradition). In the first case, it was tailor-made for some characters, who may have a specific theme that evolves with them or instruments that represent them as in spaghetti westerns. In the second case it was chosen for Jane Austen’s great passion for folk music and some songs that inspired others of folk rock, dear to the director, have recovered (Autumn de Wild has worked as a photographer and lived the world of rock and this can be found in many details).

The original part of the soundtrack was composed by Isobelle Waller-Bridge (Phoebe’s sister, yes) who had collaborated to Fleabag and was noticed by the director, interested by the ‘musical sense of humor‘ of the series, especially in the second season. They developed together themes according to the idea that the orchestra was somehow arguing with Emma and also playing with the tones of the actors’ voices, which were reproduced with musical instruments. The composer said there’s a rhythm and a musicality in de Wilde’s composition of the scenes and that contributed to the creation of the music, which followed the movements of the characters and accompanying them.

All the aspects seen above are the solid basis on which story rests and, although it’s distant from our everyday life, as it dates back to more than two hundred years ago, it’s undeniable that it speaks to us directly in many points. That’s because, even if the context and setting are so distant from us, it doesn’t necessarily mean the characters are too. Emma is hard to love in the first shots, but that’s part of the greatness of this story , having an anti-hero as the main character. The subject of the film is youth, a youth stained with hybris, which ultimately finds itself experiencing many moments that could also happen to a viewer. There are a series of topical situations, which make it a timeless tale, to which everyone can relate.

Everyone has at least once find himself at a party where someone said something rude creating general embarrassment, or in the situation of realizing they were in love with their bestfriend; Autumn de Wild started with things she lived on her skin like these, and brought out some of the most beautiful scenes in the film. The director’s life is hidden in big and small details, like Emma’s bloody nose, added to the script to humanize the character and also because it often happens to Autumn herself.

It’s easy to find yourself in the characters, because this version has focused much more on some dynamics, one of all the relationship between Harriet and Emma, in the perspective of growth. In the beginning of the film, Harriet is Emma’s new doll, and can be directed by her to a choice rather than another. The further the story goes, the more Emma sees her plans for Harriet fade and finds herself with a friend who is disconsolate and disillusioned about her marriage prospects. This does not change her, because she still remains true to herself, but it makes her grow and humbles her. At the same time, it changes her best friend, making her, for example, capable of use her voice more when she talks to Emma.

The characters are young and as young girls they behave: they change their opinion of each other over time, sometimes they are unreasonable, sometimes they are naive and above all they have that energy, those looks, which are summed up very well in the dance scene, for which everyone speaks with their eyes. Like any self-respecting costume movie, dance is used as a moment of meeting and contact, because historically it was the only time when people could be so close, physical and alive. It is also a metaphor for Emma’s point of view, who unsuccessfully seeks Churchill’s complicity only to find herself (literally, thanks to the dance) in Knightley’s arms.

The very young and very good cast renders the nuances well, and above all the familiarity or detachment that is created in one moment rather than another. One of the best actors is Johnny Flynn, who plays Knightley, who from the very first scene in which he appears is clear will be special. In fact, in that first scene Autumn de Wild wanted to show how the aristocrats were dressed and how he and Emma had the same basic clothes. So Knightley is dressed by his servants, reversing the traditional costume film topos of dressing a woman.

His character immediately seems different, from the clothes: he’s linked to Emma and often argues with her. He’s the only one who says something to her when her attitude is unbereable. He does that only to make her act less like a girl and more like a woman, but there’s an underlying sweetness in his character, which probably belongs to the family. In the final scene, indeed, both he and his brother are moved and shed a few tears at the wedding. These details and many others outline a different idea around masculinity, which always follows that perspective of familiarity that the film creates scene after scene.

A familiarity that finds its strength also in what I like to define as the ‘realistic component‘ that is present several times in the narrative. Some examples are when Emma lifts her dress to warm up herself in front of the fireplace, or when Miss Martin has the hem of the dress wet for the rain, or when the sheep are grazing in front of the houses, or when someone eats too quickly at the dinner table. All these little details give characters lifeblood and make us emphatize. Among other things, they were used wisely to let the comic streak out of the story and not to impose it rigidly from the outside.

Autumn de Wilde has reconstructed this world in detail and filled it with a sincere youth, she did it with passion and affection towards the story and its characters. If Jane Austen saw the film she could not help but confirm that it’s the definitive transposition of the story (not surprisingly there’s a point in the title) … then she would probably cry for the ending as well.

Costanza Rossi

SOURCES: costume design + analysis & + Alexandra Byrne’s interview &

set design + locations + the importance of flowers

interview with the composer Isobel Waller-Bridge + interview to the cast and to the set designer on the set + interview to the director and lead actress + Harriet and ‘Clueless’ for Autumn de Wild

why there’s a period at the end of the movie title–16722 + first scene of the film