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NYFF 2013: At 72, fashion icon Agnes B. begins a new phase

NEW YORK -- Over a five-decade career, the French fashion designer Agnes B. has engaged in some colorful pursuits. She’s opened stores from Asia to Europe, launched perfume and handbag lines and, in recent years, even dabbled in film by forming a producing collaboration with Harmony Korine that yielded "Spring Breakers."

But for all these disparate achievements, Agnes B. (also sometimes known as Agnes Trouble) had never directed a film. And she certainly hadn’t directed a film about incest and child runaways.

That can no longer be said after “My Name Is Hmmm..,” her arty and divisive directorial debut that made its North American premiere when it played for reporters at the New York Film Festival on Monday.

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Mixing a straight-ahead story of a young girl on the run with the curated aesthetics one might expect from a fashion designer, the French-language "Hmm…" centers on the pre-adolescent loner Celine (newcomer Lou-Lelia Demerliac), who, after years of being abused by her father, runs away while on a family trip. She winds up in the rig of a quiet Scottish trucker, who treats her kindly, if with a certain kind of flat affect.

As it tells its art-house tale, the film, which does not yet have commercial distribution in the U.S., folds in all manner of stylistic doodads, including freeze frames and swapped-in images of shots taken with different camera equipment.

Those bells and whistles, and the movie as a whole, haven't necessarily sat well with the critical community. A review in the Hollywood Reporter said that “Agnes B. better stick to her day job.” And that was one of the piece’s nicer pronouncements.

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But Agnes B. offered a kind of elegant shoulder shrug when asked by a critic about her choices after the post-screening Skype press conference. "I never learned how to make a film so I  felt very free and did it exactly the way wanted," she said in English. "I take the responsibility for the film the way it is."

The idea of someone like her making a movie with flourishes like this shouldn’t be surprising, she added. “I'm a stylist, so my film is full of my work stylistic things, which is normal.”

How Agnes B., who had children herself when she was not even 20, came to make the story of an abused girl is a bit mysterious. The hyphenate said she initially got the idea for the film after reading about an incident in a French prosecutor’s officer involving a suspected child-snatcher. (The movie’s climactic scene takes place in a similar venue and mirrors the events of the story Agnes B. read.)

That doesn’t fully explain her interest in the subject, though. She sought to illuminate it further.

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“This film has a lot of things I’m looking at in my own life,” she said. It’s “not my own story, but maybe I know what I'm talking about.”

She also said, “I love children, and there’s very much something I could understand from the girl,” noting Celine's quiet defiance.

Fashion designers have made fitful transitions to film before. Watching “Hmm,” one inevitably thinks of “A Single Man,” Tom Ford's directorial debut from 2009. That movie, though drawing better reviews and landing Colin Firth an Oscar nomination, was similarly on the receiving end of criticism for its self-consciousness. Ford has since gone back to designing.  Agnes B. said she hasn’t yet decided whether to make another film. She didn't sound in a great hurry, and some critics may not be inclined to rush her. Yet another Agnes B. film may not be a bad thing: An outsider's voice in the insular world of feature filmmaking can be welcome, no matter its flaws.

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