Zissou Pictures: From Fashion to Narrative Film

In 2009, internationally renowned fashion designer and film director Tom Ford momentarily traversed genres, bringing to the screens his carefully stylised, Oscar nominated directorial debut A Single Man. With its acclaimed Hollywood cast, Ford’s initiatory entrance into the feature film arena was greeted with mixed reviews, gaining a collection of awards while at the same time criticised by many for its hyper-stylised, visually flamboyant aesthetic.

The Fashion Film is a genre generally recognised for its noncommittal approach to narrative structure and capacity for artistic freedom. This freedom permits the auteur filmmaker to experiment with different aesthetic possibilities, as well as rejecting typical plot structures in favour of more esoteric forms of narrative and often hyperbolic expressions of visual aesthetic.

Coming from this more liberal cinematic background, Ford appropriated many elements and techniques native to the Fashion Film, applying them to the more rigidly defined form of narrative film. Independent film production company, Zissou Pictures, have similarly seen a recent transition from the fashion genre, as they currently begin development on their second feature film, EGG. Their upcoming film, lėthē, and Drowned Out (2012)are doused in influences from their fashion background. It’s a vibrant, eclectic and eagerly unpredictable background, and one that is essential for understanding their presence on the cinematic landscape.

SHOWstudio’s founder, Nick Knight, renowned as a pioneer in the medium of the fashion film, rejects the importance of conventional storytelling entirely, dismissing it as an unnecessary component. ‘A fashion film, like photography, should be non-narrative. You want the dress or you want to be the girl but you don’t need to know where she came from. Whoever’s clothes they are, Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto…the narrative is imbued in the clothing…Putting an event sequence or ‘narrative’ on top of that seems superfluous.’

This showcasing of aesthetic form over conventional narrative is seen in Zissou Pictures’ 2012 film for designer Katherine Bowling, in which the model’s mellifluent dance and the fluidity of fabric unite to form the narrative itself. This union of billowing texture with the up-close sensuality of skin within fabric casts the body itself as the film’s landscape, exaggerated and flaunted in movements of undulating dance. The fabric and body become the unfolding action, creating a narrative of mood, tone, and texture that is purely visual. Although an ambiguous form of narrative, it is one with which the viewer must engage in order to construct their own fantasy from the fragmented images shown.


Their 2012 fashion film for designer Michele Beil incorporates a clearer, perhaps more tangible narrative, yet still refrains from the logical, conventional narration of film. Instead, realism can be excusably escaped. Time and space are quixotically manipulated, while the refrain from purpose is admissible, as the models’ actions do not require explanation.


Zissou Pictures producers Leo Claussen and Nicholas K. Lory have worked together as a director/cinematographer duo for the past 6 years. The aesthetic influences and narrative freedom of the Fashion Film has certainly left its mark in their more recent narrative film work, having encouraged a more experimental, liberated approach that is less common in the more rigid structure of narrative film. Nicholas explains, ‘coming from fashion photography and fashion film, I think we feel considerably less constrained to accurate representation. The way that we attempt to convey narrative is therefore much less literal, perhaps more figurative.’

Their first feature film, Drowned Out (2012), is permeated with experimental, abstracted elements – lingering influences from their fashion background seen when the film’s protagonist drops a sheet of fabric unknowingly across the camera. Here, texture engulfs the frame entirely, muting the ongoing narrative behind the fabric and momentarily engraining abstraction within the plot.


Leo’s direction along with Nicholas’ cinematography instils subtle elements of abstraction within the narratives, creating scenes around explorations of texture, colour, and lighting. The vibrant colours of Drowned Out’s opening sequence, filmed outside the house, contrast expressively with the diluted light of the house’s interior, as the protagonist enters through its doors. Such refinements encourage the viewer to reflect upon the visual elements of the film, their subtleties containing an inner meaning of their own that adds a richness to the narrative that semantics lack. Nicholas explains, ‘that visceral reaction we get from a scene can often more be powerful, and certainly more memorable, than its semantics. It’s a lot more immediate, less conscious…In what the duo refer to as ‘repressed indexicality,’ the viewer is presented not with a clear sign but rather the presence of something, exposed through cinematic devices that manipulate and accentuate visual form. Rather than explicitly revealed, elements inherent to the plot are evoked through subtle yet powerful details, encouraging the viewer’s curiosity towards the visual rather than the conventionality of diction. By amplifying the visual content to be expressive as possible, the viewer is encouraged to infer their own meaning from ambiguous representations rather than concrete, visual accuracy.

Film critic Glenn Dunks considered Ford’s 2009 film as ‘an addict for prettiness’ resembling ‘an excessively over-designed photo shoot rather than a film.’ The line between visual embellishments enhancing the narrative and overpowering it entirely is a fine one, and it seems Zissou Pictures may perhaps have, in their idealistic pursuits, aptly drowned out the narrative content, with dialogue taking a backseat in face of aesthetics.

In their second, upcoming film lēthē, it seems they have learnt from this, placing much more of a focus on crafting a significantly potent plot structure. However, true to form, this narrative is not a conventional one; an artistic licensing very much influenced by the structural irregularity of the fashion genre. Its projection of non-linear imagery dissolves the rigidity of narrative-based cinema, challenging the notions of continuity and transition in a fantastical manipulation of time and space. In doing so, its produces seek to deviate from the usual structure that leads directly towards specific, predefined resolutions, without the chance to find one’s own interpretations or reflections. A film in which the reality of the fictional plot itself is altered by the protagonist, this is a fitting stylistic approach to narration.

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