Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Brüno

Review Date:  7-11-09
Release Date: 7-10-09
Runtime: 85 min.
Period: Contemporary
Costume Designer:  Jason Alper

For those of us who saw Borat, we kind of know what to expect when Sacha Baron Cohen makes another movie using one of his characters from Da Ali G Show.  The television show is/was a smaller version of these films – half character piece, half assault-documentary – but the gloves are off when you don’t have to report to TVLand censors. Therefore, no matter how persistent your kids are – begging, crying, pleading with you to let them see this film – do NOT let them see it until you have seen it with your own eyes, then use your judgment.  It is a white knuckle ride.

The film centers on Brüno, a nineteen-year-old (cough, cough) gay Austrian television host wannabe, in search of bigtime fame in America.  The movie is a series of assault-documentary pieces, strung together with a loosely woven narrative.  The idea that people in this country would still be oblivious to Baron Cohen and his characters is beyond me.  Borat was such a huge hit; and Da Ali G show famously, publicly, skewered so many American politicians in years past – how can this guy get away with it anymore?  Haven’t we caught on?

** N. B.: this film is rated R, and the contents of this review reflect the subject matter.  Please stop reading now if you are under eighteen years of age!! **

The themes in this movie are interesting as well.  Here is a straight guy from Britain who plays a gay guy from Austria, who, in showing people for who they actually are (rather than whom they pretend to be) mocks their own prejudice, intolerance, and general stupidity.   That the greater number of those mocked in the film come from the US, and specifically from the South, is not insignificant. Brüno holds an unwieldy mirror up to our own society, and not everyone will like what they see.

Playing Brüno, Baron Cohen seems to blow the stereotypes of gay men into a new stratosphere.  It’s so over-the-top that his characterization seems to be in dizzying orbit.  There have been organizations (GLAAD included) who have bristled at Baron Cohen’s portrayal of a gay man.   And bristled again.  But I ask you (and I ask this as a straight woman):  have we completely lost our sense of humor?  Can people not see the satire and the sharp irony in the film? Is this not, on some level, an entreaty for our society to accept others as they are, regardless of sexual orientation?  For those who characterize the film as crude, frivolous, and intentionally shocking, I urge them to reconsider.  The view in the mirror may not be what you’d like to see, but it is what it is.

From a costume design point of view, a film like Brüno is fascinating.  Here is the intersection of reality and fiction.  The trick is to design a character that is fully realized without being so over the top as to give the actor, the secret, away.  Designing costumes for the likes of Ali G, Borat and Brüno is kind of like designing costumes for the CIA – one false note and the gig is up.  Longtime collaborator and costume designer Jason Alper has worked with Baron Cohen since Da Ali G days, and on Brüno, he even gets an associate producer credit. Smell him!

In the film, Bruno goes from one outrageous outfit to the next.  We first see him in a clear vinyl suit with black trim.  Then it’s the famous yellow lederhosen with red checked shirt.  Then it’s blue metallic, when he’s hosting Funkyzeit, his fashion show on Austrian television.  Then he appears in a rust-colored two-piece sleeveless leather ensemble, interviewing a sadly hapless fashion designer who proceeds to expose some of his treasure trove to the camera.  This is all within the first five minutes of the film.

The number of costume changes that Brüno has is astonishing.  I presume that many of these costumes, due to their specificity and design, were custom made. However, throughout the film, we see flashes of brand names and/or signature colors – Just Cavalli men’s underwear, for example, and the green-with-red-in-the-middle Gucci stripe, as another example.  When we design costumes for feature films, we are legally required to get written permission from a company in order to use their logo, name, trademarked color scheme (as in Burberry’s plaid, Adidas’ three stripes, or, in this case, theoretically Gucci’s stripe).  This film takes so much of it in stride that it seems very organic.  I actually sat there and wondered if they had gone through the rigors of legally clearing those garments.  It is sometimes a real pain in the butt… but yet it looked so effortless here.

Bruno attends a fashion show wearing a full body suit made of Velcro (nice work, costume department) and as a consequence he gets stuck on a curtain, flailing and falling into the runway of a fashion show.  Seizing the opportunity, Brüno gets up and walks the catwalk, looking like a massive black sock with static cling.  This stunt gets Brüno “fired” from Funkyzeit, part of the narrative.

After declaring the fashion world “superficial and vacuous”, Brüno sets off to seek greater fame and fortune in Los Angeles.  It doesn’t matter what kind of fame; any kind of fame will do, for Brüno.  He is joined on his journey by his former assistant’s assistant – the nerdy, bespectacled, fisherman’s vest-wearing Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten).  When they land at LAX, Brüno walks through baggage claim covered by a blanket, “No pictures please!” and crashes into a post.

Brüno then meets with an unsuspecting, real-life talent agent, Lloyd Robinson.  Robinson couldn’t have costumed himself better if we had all struck him with our magic fairy costume wands.  This guy is complete:  pink dress shirt, tan sport coat with weird brooch, and a gigantic hunk-of-turquoise bolo tie.  In contrast, Brüno wears a black sleeveless top, an S & M-inspired choker necklace with a halter/harness hook, orange gloves, and a red thong that rides up from under his pants.  It’s quite a contrast.

Brüno gets a gig on the TV show Medium, playing a member of the jury, as an extra.  Here he wears a dark suit and tie, but still sports the characteristic frosted fashionista shag haircut.  It’s hard to tell if this Medium gig was spontaneous or if the TV show crew and actors were in on it.  It’s hard to tell with actors performing naturally (especially when they’re good actors).

Brüno anxiously prepares for an interview with Paula Abdul, wearing a tight turquoise-blue leather police shirt, complete with patches.  Paula Abdul shows up, and Brüno seats her on the back of one of his Mexican gardeners, literally, this man is on all fours; Brüno refers to them as “Mexican people chairs”.  Abdul nervously takes a seat on the man’s back.  Here’s where Baron Cohen makes his point – accepting the invitation to sit down on another human being is an indication that we as a culture are unable to draw the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of the way people should be treated, perhaps especially people of color.  It’s horrible that Brüno asks his gardeners to be human chairs, but he is a character and we know that the gardeners are “in on it” – they are also actors.  However, Abdul is none the wiser, and Baron Cohen exposes some unnerving truths, perhaps, about her willingness to conform to what is going on around her, to not question what is happening.   However, when sushi lunch arrives, served on the naked body of a gardener, wheeled in on a gurney, Abdul leaves.

Next, we see Brüno attending a test screening of his TV pilot in front of a focus group, all unsuspecting people.  Bruno wears a lovely black one-sleeved top with black leather pants.  The focus group is casually, nondescriptly dressed.  The contrast is not lost on anyone.  The tape rolls.  On it, Brüno dances in his leopard print underwear, shaking everything (and I do mean, EVERYTHING) his mama gave him.  On the tape, he conducts an interview with a reality TV star about whether Jamie Lynn Spears should abort or not abort her baby.  He wears a black mesh t-shirt and a pair of gold lamé pants.  The tape cuts back to him gyrating, wearing the Just Cavalli underwear, then to him unsuccessfully trying to interview Harrison Ford on the way out of a restaurant.  And then, finally, the focus group is treated to a nearly thirty-second performance by Brüno’s swinging organ(s) in a tight close-up.  It could not be more offensive (but also hilarious).  Needless to say, the focus group is not impressed.

Brüno decides that in order to get really famous, he should put out a sex tape.  Cut to: Brüno (wearing a dark two-piece suit and a patterned shirt underneath) conducting an interview with politician Ron Paul. Brüno asks Paul who made his suit, and Paul stammers a response that he doesn’t know; he’s not interested in fashion.  After a lightbulb blows, Brüno and Paul go to another room, where Brüno tries to seduce him.  And at this point, no matter your political conviction, you feel bad for Paul.  It’s pretty humiliating for a 73-year-old congressman.

Taking another approach to getting famous, Brüno talks to twin charity PR representatives who advise him to get involved with something like Darfur.  It is not clear whether the twins actually know where Darfur is.  At this meeting, Bruno wears an ostrich leather shirt, a shiny black vinyl jacket, and white pants.  It’s pure genius, as a costume goes.  The twins, God love them, are caricatures of Los Angeles itself (the uninformed social concern, the superficiality of celebrity culture, the good-deeds-for-results’-sake, the blind pursuit of fame), and Baron Cohen skewers them handily.  Sidebar:  naturally, the twins are spinning this appearance into something they find palatable, from a PR perspective.

Good luck with that.

Pursuant to the PR discussion, Brüno decides that peace in the Middle East is going to be his charitable endeavor.  He arrives in Israel wearing a leopard-print shorts outfit, and roams Jerusalem in a silver astronaut-looking suit, followed by a cropped Jewish Orthodox costume: big black hat, cropped black suit with shorts.  A handful of young Orthodox men, offended, chase him down.  That is the unscripted power of costumes, people!

Brüno hosts “peace talks” between significant members of the Palestinian/Israeli political minefield.  He makes Hamas/hummus references, and sings a song about peace.  Failing in those efforts, Brüno decides that being kidnapped and held for ransom is the quickest way to get famous.  Wearing nothing but a black vest and brown leather pants, he meets with a real-life terrorist leader to see if he can be kidnapped.  After referring to Osama Bin Laden looking like a “homeless Santa Claus”, he is ordered to leave.

Arriving back at LAX with his assistant Lutz, Brüno wears a fancy purple silk caftan-robe type garment.  He orders Lutz to pick up a box off the luggage carousel.  He opens the box and extracts a small African child, much to the horror of the other passengers.  This child we come to know as OJ, Brüno’s adopted son (à la Brangelina, Madonna).

Setting up a photo shoot to publicize his adoption, Brüno interviews parents of children, potential models, for the photo shoot. Brüno wears a silver metallic vinyl jacket with black pants.  Parents of these children, not in on the joke, are dressed casually, but their clothing tells us volumes about their socioeconomic state.  These are not rich people. Brüno asks them all manner of questions, basically asking the parents if they would be willing to imperil their child’s health and safety in order to get the job, and the consistent, sad answer is, “Yes.”  While funny to some members of the audience, the desperation struck me as extremely sad.  Parents willing to risk their child’s safety for a buck or two in this economy struck a little close to the bone, given our current state of affairs.

Brüno then makes an appearance on Today with Richard Bey (a daytime talk show) discussing “unusual parenting”.  He wears a sleeveless white shirt with black vest, skinny black tie, and black leather pants with light-colored python boots.  OJ is wheeled onstage in a pram, wearing a short, black, cropped t-shirt that says “GAYBY”, and little brown leather pants.  The audience goes nuts.  A “representative” from Children’s Protective Services shows up and removes the baby from Brüno on the spot. Brüno tussles with the guards, ripping his shirt.

Cut to Brüno at a diner, committing “carbicide”.  He eats pies, cakes, ice cream dishes, and Lutz has to carry him back to the hotel because Brüno can’t walk.  The next morning, Brüno and Lutz awake in a compromising position.  Lutz and Brüno are chained together clad only in S & M gear (and an ermine Davy Crockett hat for Brüno), unable to find the key to unlock themselves.  They call hotel management, who are not amused.  They roam the streets in this gear, asking a group of  “God Hates Fags” protesters to help them unlock themselves.  The protesters don’t know what to make of them.  It’s the ugly reflection in the mirror again.  The cops arrive.

After their release from jail (a narrative point that is never established, just implied), Brüno burns the love-struck Lutz, who thought they had a chance at love. Brüno sets off on his own, dragging five racks of clothing down the street in the rain at night, collapsing in a heap in front of a store with televisions beaming the images of Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey. Brüno has an epiphany:  what he needs to be famous is to be straight, like those guys!  Sidebar – this is sticky territory for Baron Cohen, who, himself, lives in a glass house.

In seeking to become straight, Brüno consults with a pastor intent on “curing homosexuality with the help of Jesus”, Jody Trautwein of Alabama. Brüno shows up for his first meeting with the pastor wearing a sleeveless red leather lace-up top and big black knee-high boots.  Trautwein pretends not to notice the getup, feigns incomprehension of Brüno’s come-ons.  Trautwein’s efforts fail.

Brüno visits a karate instructor to learn how to defend himself against attacks by homosexuals. Brüno wears tight, cropped leggings and a skin-tight, short-sleeved top as he wrestles with the openly homophobic, bemulleted instructor.  They fight and tumble, literally, wielding dildos.  The karate instructor pretends that it’s no big deal, even seeing Brüno in the end wearing one of them.

Going for broke, Brüno enlists in the Army.  He turns up at Fort McCullum wearing neatly pressed khaki pants, a blue dress shirt, a neck tie and a navy sweater vest.  Conservative!  They order him into his uniform, and he emerges wearing a scarf, tall boots and white belt with his BDUs.  They ask him about the belt.  “It’s D & G,” Brüno replies.  “What is D & G?”  “Dolce and Gabbana, HELLO!” Brüno retorts.  Awesome.

Brüno tries to go hunting with some good old boys, Alabama rednecks, smoking Winstons and drinking cheap beer from the can.  Dressed in a long-sleeved black t-shirt, with a camouflage vest, a sort of baseball hat with a curtain in the back, and designer sunglasses, Brüno professes his love for v*g*na.  During the night, Brüno attempts to get into one of the men’s tents – he wears only a silk robe.  The man tells him to get lost. Brüno comes back, later in the night, asking to get into the tent, wearing nothing at all.  Slowly, Bruno reveals himself by losing his clothes.  The rednecks are not amused.

With all of those unsuccessful efforts, Brüno meets with a second clergyman for a  “homosexual cure”.  This time, Brüno wears khaki pants and a blue button-front, long-sleeved shirt.  Perhaps he is taking this going straight more seriously!  After this meeting, he joins a group of heterosexual swingers in an attempt to be with a woman.  He is eventually stripped down to his double-layer of underwear – a brilliant touch on the part of the costume department. Brüno must have known he was going to get down to his skivvies, and wore two pair for extra protection.

This part of the film is extremely graphic, so I will spare you the details. Brüno jumps out of a window, and escapes.

Cut to: Arkansas. Brüno, posing as “Straight Dave” hosts a cage-fight.  This costume is awesome – he looks like the wrestler Slim Jim – long brown wig, facial hair in muttonchops, big sunglasses, camouflage hat, sleeveless shirt, and pants, with boots.  This is Brüno ‘s impression of what a straight man must look like.  The arena is packed with rowdy drunken rednecks, lured by the prospect of “hot chicks and $1 beers”.  They wear t-shirts emblazoned with “Straight Dave” anti-gay slogans.  They are wasted and they are homophobes.  Here comes that darned mirror again, pointing out America’s mindless complicity in questionable/unacceptable ideas.

Straight Dave leads the enthusiastic crowd in a chorus of loud anti-gay chants, and then takes a fight challenge from someone in the crowd.  That someone turns out to be… Lutz.  Lutz enters the ring, and instead of fighting, ends up making out with Brüno.  They tear each other’s clothes off and grope each other passionately.  The crowd goes berserk, throwing beer, garbage, bottles, and even a chair into the ring.  The arena empties.

Cut to: Brüno, in white sleeveless tuxedo with bowtie, approaching a dais where a justice of the peace waits.  The justice asks for the bride, and up comes Lutz, dressed in a wedding gown and thick tulle veil.  Disgusted, the justice refuses to marry the two.  He leaves the room in a huff.  It’s poignant, actually, a clear example of the prejudice and intolerance that some people experience daily, on a very real level.  For all the grotesque overtures made in the film, for all the penises and gay sex jokes and shock value, the refusal of marriage scene strikes me as the most resonant.  In my opinion, this scene hits at the core of what the movie is really about.

The films ends with Brüno singing his peace song in a recording studio, wearing a white feather vest with white feather wristlets, and a barbed wire necklace: tortured, but redeemed.  He is joined at the microphone by Bono, Sting, Snoop Dogg, Elton John, Chris Martin, and Slash on guitar.  The funny bit?  Elton John is playing piano, sitting on the back of one of the gardeners seen earlier.

I have to say that the costumes are brilliant.  They help to define who Brüno is.  He is the kind of character who uses fashion (and therefore costume) directly to express himself.  All of these crazy outfits make sense in light of who Brüno is.  The funny thing?  As outré as some of the costumes are, no one seemed to blink an eye at them in Los Angeles.

When you look at Sacha Baron Cohen just as he is naturally, as in… HERE:

It is hard to believe that you can get a frosted-hair, light-complected, full-body-waxed kind of character out of him.  He was, after all, Borat:

And, let’s not forget, Ali G:

Baron Cohen utilizes these costumes to create the character.  Costume is essential to his characterization.  Serious mad love to Jason Alper for such great work.  One of the signs of great costume design is that the actor is totally unrecognizable from the character, once in costume.  The actor and the character merge.  And that is what has happened here with Brüno.  It’s wonderful work.

Not only did Alper design Brüno’s costumes for the eponymous film, he also continued to design costumes for Baron Cohen’s appearances as Brüno for the various world premieres of the film.  For more pictures of the premiere costumes, CLICK HERE.


For more info on Brüno, and some interesting articles –

Story with interviews of some of Brüno’s victims

An account of the cage Fight, with Straight Dave.

Brüno on MySpace (MeinSpace).

— KMB

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