It can be said that lockdown has not been kind to fashion: last October the UK press reported that the country was facing a leisurewear shortage. When the French-Senegalese director and actor Mati Diop was approached early last year by the fashion house Miu Miu to make a short film for its Women’s Tales series, it posed a challenge. The brief for the series (which has run since 2011 and featured film-makers including Zoe Cassavettes, Chloë Sevigny and Lynne Ramsay) is straightforward enough: the film-makers must be women and can film whatever they choose, providing the film features Miu Miu clothing. The situation becomes more complicated during a pandemic: how exactly do you make a film – and one with fashion as a focus – amid the isolation, confinement and leisurewear of lockdown?
In Diop’s 20-minute film In My Room, we are entirely confined to her small studio on the 24th floor of a tower block in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. The action, such as it is, takes place at the windows: Diop focuses her camera on her neighbours’ apartments and the sprawl of surrounding neighbourhoods. While the weather provides some drama (it rains, it shines, it thunders, the fog rolls in), we mostly see nothing much. It is compelling nonetheless, as Diop’s long-focus lens lingers intimately on a woman fussing over her curtains, or a man looking anxiously from cookbook to microwave. In one gloomy window, two silhouetted figures suddenly embrace and kiss passionately; in another, a man leans forward heavily and drags on a cigarette in the dark.
It is not so much what we see, however, as what we hear that gives the film its power. “The only film I can imagine making now during confinement,” we watch Diop write in an email to Miu Miu, “is based on the recordings of my grandmother, Maji, that I registered a few months before she passed away. The recordings took place in … her Parisian apartment where she lived alone and confined for 20 years.” We hear, at first, the kind of stories we expect from an older relative as Maji talks about the war (“dead cats on the icy sidewalk”) and the consolation of film (“but there was cinema!”). The conversation turns to Maji’s soprano mother (Diop’s great-grandmother). “Did she sing La traviata?” asks Diop. “Bien sûr,” Maji responds. The prelude of La traviata begins to play and Maji’s voice slips hauntingly into the present. “Paris is the best city in the world for music and yet we can go nowhere. And we’re going to die. Isn’t that silly?”
The casual (and very French) comment on mortality and absurdity delivered by Maji gives the film’s voyeuristic footage an uncomfortable poignancy – and this is nowhere more keenly felt than during the futile circuits we witness Diop and her neighbours make to and from the fridge. The first time Diop peers into the chill light she turns away empty-handed. One of her neighbours does exactly the same moments later. The next time Diop opens the fridge, she is wearing a pair of towering, incarnadine, high-heeled shoes: it is a witty and unexpected introduction of the Miu Miu clothes. We watch Diop crouch in front of the fridge in the scarlet heels and retrieve a bottle of wine and a Tupperware container. A corkscrew rattles off-camera: all dressed up and nowhere to go.
The high-heeled raid on the fridge is one instance of the smart and sensitive way Diop incorporates fashion into her film: she makes the point that what people are wearing is just as significant as what they are not. When we see two sequined dresses blazing in the evening sun and hanging limply from a door, the empty and unworn clothes become a melancholy reminder of lives un-lived, postponed, diverted or cut short. “If … there had been no war,” Maji says at the beginning of the film, “I would have also tried to be an actress.”
The final time we see Diop, she is wearing one of the dresses, and its diamantés flash like the night-time city lights on the other side of the window. The dress brings the outside inside: Diop throws her head back and lip-syncs to La traviata (it’s the bit where Violetta realises she loves Alfredo) and suddenly it doesn’t matter if Paris is the best city in the world for music (or, for that matter, fashion) and you can’t go out. It’s an irreverent and defiant scene, and captures the escapism dressing up can offer. But it only lasts a moment. The music stops abruptly and the film cuts to a curtain in the wind straining to get free as we hear Diop comforting a distressed Maji. “Come on,” she says in the film’s final words, “let’s go out.”