The Fabric of Our Lives: Costuming ‘Cloud Atlas’


The Fabric of Our Lives: Costuming ‘Cloud Atlas’

Doona Bae in Cloud Atlas. Photo by Jay Maidment © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas. Photo by Reiner Bajo © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas. Photo by Reiner Bajo © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas. Photo by Jay Maidment – © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Directors Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) have effectively, and I’m impressed, managed to restructure David Mitchell’s palindromic, century-spanning, genre-play novel into 172 tight minutes of blockbuster also called Cloud Atlas. If you get into it, which experience tells me not everyone does—but if you do—you’ll laugh and gasp and maybe even jump in your seat. You’ll still probably roll your eyes more than once. Maybe you’ll clap. Doubtful you’ll cry (not that they’re not trying.)

I tried to keep my critical impulse on while watching Cloud Atlas. I wanted to be smarter in my viewing. But I was pleasurably taken away. Superego drowned out by an Id pulsing soundtrack, I forgave (temporarily) all the flaky mysticism and lowest common denominator thematic reminders that should have annoyed. If it catches your imagination, the movie will propel you forward like Spidey slinging across Manhattan. It’s fun.

The one element that slipped my suspension of disbelief was the costuming and makeup. Cloud Atlas follows six interconnected narratives, spanning from the mid 19th century through the 1930s, the 1970s, the present day, a dystopic not-so-distant future, and a post-apocalyptic, neo-tribal who-knows-when. Historical fiction and sci-fi: it’s a costumer’s dream.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis have their actors playing multiple roles of varying age, gender, and race (the internet is already pissy about Jim Sturgess’ yellowface.) At their strata of fame, it’s hard enough seeing stars like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry as anything but Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. Try believing Hanks in how many different roles? Four? Halle Berry plays five characters, among them Jewish Jocasta and a man. The conceit is marvelous: actors as souls reincarnating across time. A Wachowski utopia: gender, race, and class station aren’t what define you, it’s your soul (and that comet shaped birthmark). The less-than-subtle makeup though (whiteface, blackface, yellowface, cannibalface!) only drew attention back to physiognomy and difference.

There’s even a greenface—a green leprechaun ghoul played by type-evil-cast Agent Smith, Hugo Weaving.

The tagline for Cloud Atlas the movie is “everything is connected.” The eternal recurrence in fashion would have been fun to play with. There’s some of that. We can watch the evolution of the three-piece suit from 19th century foulard ornamentation, as worn by the seafaring lawyer played by Jim Sturgess, through to 1930s Edinburgh and a subtly dandy waistcoat traded between gay lovers, on to 1970s San Fran and intrepid reporter Halle Berry with her soulful, women’s lib turtleneck and bell bottom pant suit, and finally to Mao minimalism in Neo-Seoul circa 2144. Everything looks very 2012, though. The costumes are shiny and clean and, for the most part, rely on contemporary cliches of the past and future.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis each brought their own costume designers with them: Kym Barrett follows from Matrix Trilogy loyalty while Tykwer relied on Pierre-Yves Gayraud, who worked most recently on the gender bending Albert Nobbs. As in the Matrixes, Barrett’s aesthetic for Cloud Atlas is over the top and clunky like cosplay. In the Neo-Seoul segment, which borrows its urban architecture most obviously from Blade Runner, the costumes are anime bright and glossy versus underground gritty (not unlike plugged-in-Matrix perfection versus Zion’s reality; the Wachowskis love their dichotomies.) Revolutionary Sonmi of Neo-Seoul, played by Doona Bae, is the most believable in her look because it’s so minimal. Barrett says the team, “decided to present her almost naked. We let her face be the focus.”

Other highlights: Post-apocalypse, Tom Hanks’ tribe clothe themselves in sparkly wabisabi knitwear that recalls Arielle de Pinto’s disintegrating luxury chainmail. Jim Broadbent’s 1930s dressing gown was a marvel, like something Emilie Louise Flöge and Gustav Klimt would have worked in. Pierre-Yves Gayraud fashioned it from a 1970s fabric with geometric designs that reminded him of early 20th century Futurism.

Like the film itself, the costuming in Cloud Atlas is sentimental and flashy. It tells you what to think about the characters, instead of inviting you to speculate sense into an unknown world. And that’s what the better sci-fi and fantasy movies do.