Cinema: Eileen Gray's genius and the price of desire
Film-maker Mary McGuckian tells Aine O'Connor about 'going over to the Gray side'
In the early 1970s antiques dealer Cheska Vallois sold Eileen Gray's "Dragons" armchair to Yves Saint Laurent for a hefty but undisclosed sum.
Following the designer's death the art collection he had amassed with his partner was auctioned. Amongst the items for sale was Eileen Gray's "Dragons" chair, and amongst the bidders was Cheska Vallois. It was a much wanted item, but just how wanted came as a surprise to everyone, including Cheska's husband who sat beside her as she outbid everyone else. The final price was almost €22m. When asked why, Vallois answered quite simply that it had been "The price of desire."
Film-maker Mary McGuckian was in the Grand Palais that day because she was in the middle of her own Eileen Gray adventure. Gray as a film subject had been suggested to Mary before, but she had resisted because she was either in the middle of something else, or because she simply didn't see the drama in the story. Four years ago, however, a confluence of events persuaded her to do some research and, although Gray had died in 1976, through her research Mary got to know Eileen Gray, to like and admire her, and to see a universal truth in her story. The film she has just completed, as writer, director and producer, is called The Price of Desire.
Born in Enniscorthy in 1888 to an Anglo-Irish family, Eileen Gray moved to France to study in the early 1900s. "In the pictures of Eileen Gray from before 1900 she was a Victorian lady," explains Mary. "Then she did a phenomenal change, within eight years she iwas wearing 'lesbian chic' as Peter O'Brien [costume designer on the film] says - trousers suits and a bobbed haircut. It was a big change and she stayed that modern all her life."
In Paris, Gray swiftly became part of several avant-garde circles. "She had a very busy social life as a young woman," Mary says. "She was really in the milieu of all that was going on in Paris in the artistic community, then subsequently in the design and architecture community. It's clear from the archive that she had a lot of lovers, male and female. She also made friendships that lasted to the end of her life."
Gray is often considered reclusive; not so says Mary McGuckian. "We think of her as reclusive because we're looking at the last 30 years of her life. But in the last 30 years she was past retirement age! She had had a career before the First World War, a career between the two World Wars and lived through two World Wars and then she was going a little bit blind and in her 60s and we call her reclusive! It's age as well. I'm 50 now and I couldn't be arsed going out to nightclubs!" she chuckles.
The film spans Gray's life from when she is 30 until her death. "They were all bisexual, we're pretty sure. Eileen Gray had relationships with many but one particular love of her life was the singer Damia [Marie-Louise Damien], who Alanis Morissette plays in the film. She had a picture of Damia on her mantelpiece all her life," but, as the director describes, the relationship did not last. "Gaby Bloc, who used to work for Eileen Gray, ran off with Damia and they lived around the corner for 50 years. Damia and Badovici, even though he was a bit of a tearaway, were the loves of her life. They were all having relationships between each other. As Alanis says, 'the 60s were the wannabe 20s', the 1920s were ferocious!"
Jean Badovici, architect and critic, also had a huge influence on Gray's remarkable career, as did Le Corbusier. The film looks at the ongoing issues over whether they stole credit for Gray's ideas and eclipsed her star. Gray is, after all, considered an integral part of the Modernist movement but is relatively little known for all that.
Vincent Perez did huge preparation to play the role of Le Corbusier and his director is delighted with the result. Francesco Sciana plays Badovici but casting the lead proved a surprisingly challenging task. An incredible 35 actresses were attached over the preparation time. "Three or four were paid, contracted, but for one reason or another they fell through," McGuckian found the experience eye-opening and "really, really disappointing." She says, "All these actresses who complain that there aren't lead roles for women and then when you offer them a lead role, they panic. The Helen Mirrens and Judi Denchs of the world always wanted to play great roles so they would go in search of great roles."
Times and attitudes have changed she explains, "These girls are searching endorsements. All of the girls I was talking to had a major endorsement so for instance, one of them wasn't allowed cut her hair so she couldn't play the part. I had to talk to cosmetics companies to see a) could they be released from their schedule and b) what could we do to them?"
Casting issues notwithstanding, much of the film process felt, to its creator, like an external hand was guiding it, and in the end, she feels, the film got the lead it always required, Irish actor Orla Brady. "When you see it, you just know it is the right person. Also it was very important to Eileen Gray that she was recognised as Irish. That's why it was so important that Orla play her, and it's so important that it's premiering in Ireland too. JDIFF [The Jameson Dublin Film Festival] is a great event, I was so delighted to have been invited to premiere the film here."
Jennifer Gough, author of one of the most important books on Eileen Gray, calls it "going over to the Gray side" and there was such an enormous amount of help and willingness given by experts on Gray that there will be a documentary by Marco Orsini to accompany the film, as well as a book of stills by Julian Lennon, and Morissette is releasing a version of a Damia classic.
Completion of the film will mark the end of the odyssey on the Gray side that Mary McGuckian cannot have foreseen. She has little trace of her Antrim accent left, in part she says because she was sent to boarding school in the south in her teens and in part because she says it's always "chameleonic", it changes according to with whom she is speaking.
She describes her own life as being in a little bit of flux at the moment. Just returned from LA she says, "I don't know where I'm based, I'm in the middle of figuring it out! Though really the last few years I have been based in Ireland."
Her marriage to actor John Lynch ended in recent years, according to one report in divorce, to another in annulment.
She shakes her head,"I can tell you honestly I don't know what's going on. It's still getting sorted out. We were married in 1997, though we were together from 1993, so 18 years. I didn't see it coming."
But with endings come new beginnings. She does not actually turn 50 until May and is looking forward to new experiences and adventures beyond the Gray side.
The 13th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival takes place from March 19-29. The full line-up for the Festival programme will be announced on February 25 and will include exciting themed strands, along with a host of special guests and special events. www.jdiff.com