New Documentary ‘Unknown Beauty: François Nars’ Explores The Influences And Visions Of The Legendary Makeup Artist

One might expect a documentary about one of the world’s most famous makeup artists to be filled with scenes of applying makeup and chatter of favorite beauty formulas. But François Nars wanted something unexpected and that’s exactly what Unknown Beauty: François Nars is. Directed by filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the non-linear feature-length film is a visual love letter to the origins, muses and influences of the French-born makeup artist, photographer, founder and creative director of NARS Cosmetics.

“I wanted to do something very different, not your obvious documentary of me sitting on a chair, answering questions and talking about my life,” Nars says. “I wanted to show people what helped me build my creative visions over the years, since my childhood all the way to today. The images were very important so people can understand where I come from, and what excited me since day one when I first started watching the movies that made such an imprint on me and the fashion images that I’ve seen. All those things created the NARS brand. Lisa understood that it had to be a more rebellious documentary because somewhere deep inside, I’m a rebel. I don’t like conventional things; I like when you break the mold. I like surprise to people in a good way.”

Breathtakingly beautiful to watch, Unknown Beauty: François Nars is a veritable lesson in cinema and art. It is releasing on September 11 across several platforms, including Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube Movies and Vimeo on Demand. Much of the film—specifically 85 percent—is filled with clips from classic cinema of the movies that shaped Nars’ unique aesthetic, particularly his color palette and take on glamour. There is licensed footage from over 50 of his favorite movies spanning the golden age of Old Hollywood to the Nouvelle Vague.

“The nature of my work has been very archival,” says Immordino Vreeland, who also directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. “This is a very authentic film in the sense that not only are we showing the best movies in cinema history, but we also have surrounded them by really beautiful words, and we’re using serious poetry and something with real gravitas. This is all to show his world and what’s so nice is that you can do this with guts to it; you don’t always have films that can do that.”

Immordino Vreeland acknowledges that sharing so many visual references in one film lends itself to many rewatches, as people may want to re-examine images or absorb different elements during each viewing. “The premise of this is to use it almost as a resource for going into all of these different worlds,” she says. “These are all the worlds that really built François and his vocabulary around beauty. It’s all about the search of beauty.”

For a deeply personal touch, films and photographs from Nars’ childhood are included, from his childhood in the Pyrenees and summers spent in Biarritz. His very first muse, his mother, Claudette, is often the focus of that footage. The film has minimal dialogue, making the dialogue that exists even more meaningful. “Sometimes when you don’t have the person sitting on a couch and talking to the camera, you maybe feel you’re not learning enough, but if you pay attention to the words, there’s quite a lot of information about myself—it’s not traditional,” Nars says. “There’s a lot of explanation about what I love. I’m opening myself about many things, about school, my childhood, loving my mother and my love for cinema.”

The film also includes clips from the peak fashion era, including footage from the runways in 1970s Paris and Steven Meisel photographing supermodels like Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell in the 1990s. “I’m a very visual person,” Nars says. “I am obsessed with images. I cannot stop looking at photography, at cinema. It’s an obsession and I need that to help me create because I always find ideas for makeup. People really inspire me. Hopefully [the film] translates the fact that I’m very obsessed with images and visions of beauty and I need to be constantly inspired. When you have a job like I have as a photographer and as a makeup brand creator and artistic director at NARS, you need to be constantly motivated. Hopefully people will understand me better through that—it’s actually much more revealing.”

It was also important to include those fashion and beauty images because they helped Nars learn his trade, as he spent hours studying them as a child. “It was the best school to look at the photographs, and I would copy the makeup myself,” he recalls. “I would look at how the eye was painted. With the help of my mother telling me what she loves about beauty and then watching all those photographs plus the movies, that’s really the school that I went to.”

Unknown Beauty: François Nars is narrated by Charlotte Rampling. Having done a campaign with her a few years ago, Nars already had a relationship with the actress. “She fell in love with the script and that’s incredible because I was obsessed with Charlotte Rampling since the very first time I saw her, which was in The Damned, the Visconti movie,” he says. “To have her have almost a dialogue with me in the movie is a dream come true.”

For Nars and Immordino Vreeland, the film was a deeply collaborative process, made easier by the fact that they appreciate the same films and many of the same references, and have a natural chemistry. The hardest challenge was editing down the film clips. Luckily, they were able to secure the rights for nearly all of the movies that are his grandest inspirations.

Nars’ private island retreat Motu Tane in Tahiti, which has sparked many of his ideas, is also featured in the film. Shot in a sepia tone to give the lush location a dream-like distinction, it has a different tone than the rest of the film. Instead of showing his house there, the footage is of the island itself, with palm trees swaying in the wind. Nars collects old photographs from the 1900s and finds the black and white and sepia images more intriguing. “I wanted to show the French Polynesia in my dreams,” he says. “I’m always attracted to Tahiti in black and white because I feel that brings up more beauty than color, the contrast of the darkness, the light, the brightness and all that water. It is more poetic in a way.”

Nars views Unknown Beauty: François Nars almost as a “little library or a scrapbook” of images that he learned from, and hopes that viewers find it educational as well. That’s why Immordino Vreeland included such rich, detailed credits at the end of the film. “It’s about his relentless search for beauty, and as a general message about him, but I feel that everybody should always have a personal takeaway of the film,” Immordino Vreeland says. “It should make people curious. This is so much more powerful than a straightforward film of how he started the brand. This is what I wanted to do because it’s there’s so much more strength in the words and images of this film than anything else.”

Ultimately, Unknown Beauty: François Nars is about the beauty that exists not just around Nars, but around all of us. “It has to be great; you don’t do a film like that every year,” Nars says. “This will remain hopefully, for many years to come, in the archives of the brand of NARS and then in people’s memory of whatever I did on this planet.”

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