A new film, The Price of Desire, starring Orla Brady as the neglected Irish designer and architect plans to put her back in the public eye where she belongs.
Gray designed the world's most expensive chair in the late 1920s, which she playfully titled “chair for a non-conformist,” and it eventually became a design classic that was later owned by Yves St. Laurent, selling for 22 million euro at auction in 2009.
You'd think, given how sought after her work is by collectors now, that we would all have a much better appreciation for her life and work, but unfortunately, we do not.
By neglecting her achievements for so long we have unwittingly colluded with some famous men like Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, a Swiss-born designer who was obsessed with her work but contemptuous of her achievements. He felt his talent overshadowed hers and he worked to ensure that his contemporaries agreed with him.
History is usually written by whoever pays the writers. Rarely is it written by the people who were crushed? That was the case for Gray, the gifted Enniscorthy raised designer and architect, one of whose groundbreaking designs now rank among the hundred most important Irish artifacts ever made.
Next week a striking film by Irish director Mary McGuckian intends to settle these old scores and restore Gray's true stature. Starring Orla Brady (best known for A Love Divided) and featuring appearances by Catriona Balfe and Alanis Morissette, with costume designs by Peter O'Brien and featuring a score by Brian Byrne, it's an Irish rescue mission to restore a talent that should never have been sidelined.
Brady is terrific as the Wexford born woman coming into her own as a creative force to be reckoned with. The film opens with her later in life reconsidering her greatest achievement, the so-called E-1027 villa in the Cote d'Azur in the south of France. Wrongly attributed by many to Le Corbusier, she was slow to claim her own work and consequently, that allowed the less scrupulous to claim it from her.
Years after she built the now celebrated villa in the French Riviera, Le Corbusier covered it in his own garish clashing murals like a dog marking his territory, one critic wrote. His paintings were not sanctioned by Gray and they infuriated her, allowing people to mistakenly conclude that he had also designed the striking building itself, which he never troubled to deny, playing cannily to the overt sexism of the era.
Brady is a superb actress and inhabits her character completely, bringing to life her passion for art and design as well as for men and women (Gray was openly bisexual). We are introduced to her great loves like Jean Badovici (Francesco Scianna) and Marisa Damia (Alanis Morissette) and we see how deeply her feelings for them influence her creative life (the villa was built for her lover Badovici).
Gray's lover accepts the love token and crucially he accepts the villa's ownership, which turns out to have unforeseen complications for Gray when it comes to claiming authorship later on. Sandwiched between two powerful and contrasting men with their own outlooks and agendas, we see what happens when they take advantage of the social rules of the time.
Vincent Perez is the nervy villain of the piece Le Corbusier, who has come to erase her legacy and burnish his own, but he''s portrayed so waspishly at times that we can see this film's real goal is Gray's rehabilitation, not reconsideration.
Thankfully there is a lot worth rehabilitating. Bisexual at a time when it could result in institutionalization and worse, determined to make her own art on her terms, and a feminist icon in the making, Gray may be better understood in our time than she ever was on her own.
This film is a labor of love, sometimes a little too much love, as the dialogue wants to ensure you don't miss an ounce of Gray's enduring cultural value and world-class status. That can lead to discussions about whether or not she invented the first piece of tubular steel furniture, which is not the kind of conversation anyone but design buffs can ever imagine themselves having.
But a surfeit of love is better than none, and we can forgive the excesses in pursuit of the real objective, which is to rescue a brilliant woman from the clumsy hands of the men that surrounded her and failed to give her her due.
The Price Of Desire is beyond any person's capacity to pay for, and so it proves for Gray personally and professionally. You could certainly see her personal and artistic troubles and this film as an unimportant squabble between minted toffs who live in a rarefied world that we will never inhabit (I mean, when was the last time you stayed in a modernist villa on the water's edge in the French Riviera) or you could recognize her value as an artist and creator of the first rank who has been criminally neglected due to sexism and snobbery.
Director McGuckian has created a heartfelt tribute to an artist she plainly adores. She keeps us and the camera at a remove, however, as if she doesn't trust us not to do what Le Corbusier and Badovici once did to her heroine. Gray is at the front guard of European modernism the film shows us, in fact, she is the mother of it (James Joyce was an early buyer of her work) but just don't get too close.
Gray lived to be 98 and saw the stirrings of the retrospective that is finally restoring her achievements. In The Price Of Desire, the force of her personality and the enduring importance of her work have been restored too.
The Price Of Desire will be available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Digital Platforms and On-Demand on June 2.