Blonde or brunette? Celluloid rivals fight it out in Paris

On a wall-mounted screen, Marilyn Monroe sings a chorus from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" next to a blown-up picture of Kristin Scott Thomas pulling off a peroxide wig to reveal the dark hair beneath.

"Brunette/Blonde?", which opened this month at the Paris cinematheque, uses film and television archives, photography and art to retrace how generations of movie makers have used women's hair to seduce and shape their times.

Penelope Cruz stares out from underneath a platinum wig, her sultry Latin looks camouflaged for the camera, for the poster of the show.

"Women's hair is a constant motif for all filmmakers, in all films," said curator Alain Bergala, whether curled and glamorous like Veronica Lake, wild and loose like Brigitte Bardot, or cropped and rebellious like Jean Seberg.

Above all, he said, "the 20th century was the century of blonde imperialism" - and nowhere more so than on the film sets of Hollywood.

Illustrating the point: a pre-war US archive clip of Lana Turner gives women detailed tips on how to achieve the same hairstyle, with short blonde curls wound cherub-like around her head.

In another, Jane Fonda talks on camera about her early experience of the film industry - how it judged her too dark to be "commercial", so that for 10 years she was forced to dye her hair and lashes blonde.

A kaleidoscope of "Elle" magazine covers shows Catherine Deneuve through the ages, polished, thick locks at shoulder length in the 1960s to frizzy-haired blonde in the 1980s - each time a model of femininity for her generation.

But even in the movie world, the image of the blonde flickered back and forth between "pure and impure."

Until the 1930s, the blonde was the demure housewife, and the brunette was cast as a temptress. Then the tables turned - the blonde taking over as femme fatale, an enduring myth that culminated in the figure of Marilyn Monroe.

"At each period, the viewer knows how to tell the good girl from the bad, even if the codes have changed," said Bergala.

Later, the show moves the viewer away from the stereotype of the eternal rivals on to the 1990s and the cinema of David Lynch and his "idea that there is a blonde and a brunette inside every woman," said Bergala.

In Lynch's "Lost Highway", Patricia Arquette plays both sides of a female figure - dark and blonde. In "Mulholland Drive" the twin heroines, blonde and dark, are caught in a complex play on identity.

The Paris show also aims for a broader historical sweep, looking at the politics of hair throughout the decades.

From the 19th century Suffragettes or 1920s flappers to Jean Seberg's now-classic crop in the 1960s, short hair symbolised women's liberation, while Black Panther activists adopted the afro as a means of protest.

One gem - a US propaganda film from World War II - enjoins women to ditch Veronica Lake-style locks for shorter, practical styles better suited to working on factory machines in the war effort.

On a darker note, the show also highlights how the Nordic cult of blondness was adopted by Nazi Germany as a symbol of racial purity, spreading to Josef's Stalin's Soviet Union which celebrated the ideal of the blonde peasant - and on to the film studios of the United States.

The Western myth excluded blacks, hispanics and ethnic minorities, but the show makes a point of touching on hair's role in other cultures - from Japan to the Middle East, Africa or India.

"In Indian cinema, when two characters fall in love they cannot be shown kissing, so they convey emotion by showing the woman's hair lifting in the breeze," said the curator.

Bergala commissioned six filmmakers from around the world to produce short films for the exhibit, including one by Iran's Abbas Kiarostami which closes the visit.

In the film, four-year-old Rebecca stares straight into the camera, all smiles with her chubby pink cheeks, bright green eyes and long chestnut plait.

But when told her lovely locks might have to be snipped off for the purpose of the plot, she falters, chin wavering and little face dropping as she understands the decision facing her.

It takes a few moments but Rebecca's choice is clear: Forget making me a movie star - I'm keeping my hair.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk