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Different shades of Gray

Isabelle Priest

Two new films explore the life of Eileen Gray, from different perspectives that tell different stories

There has been a renewed interest in Eileen Gray in recent years. In 2009 her Dragons armchair sold at auction in Paris for €21.9million; in autumn 2015 there was an exhibition in London of her paintings; and over the past eight years there have been nearly a dozen books published about her and her work. ‘The Price of Desire’ and ‘Gray Matters’, two films now being screened together around the UK and Ireland, are another of these cultural efforts that aim to collectively re-establish her position in design and architectural history.

Directed by Mary McGuckian, starring Orla Brady as the protagonist and opening with a flashforward of that record-breaking auction, The Price of Desire charts Gray’s life through the house she designed in 1926 for her lover Jean Badovici in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d’Azur, E-1027.

The film proceeds irregularly through time and space – to an elderly Gray being shown slides of the ultra-modernist house with tears running down her face; the house being bought by another woman when we see Le Corbusier for the first time; to Jean Badovici, the architect and writer, persuading Gray to be his lover and teaching her to draw; and to Gray visiting a plot among Mediterranean scrub along a turquoise blue sea.

Gray is introduced to one of her idols, Le Corbusier, and from here we understand the trouble begins – from her idea to design the house herself rather than commission it, and her slight divergence from his Five Points of Architecture. We understand Gray as a grafter; a hard worker, full of ideas and inspiration, and a liberal thinker.

The film then turns into a complex lust and jealousy-driven triangle between Gray, Badovici and Le Corbusier – an affair that prevails over Gray’s authority of the house. She builds a new one for herself in nearby Menton, Tempe à Pailla, and gradually authorship of the original slips further and further away. Le Corbusier defaces its white walls, the Germans occupy it and it is renamed Villa Badovici as Corbusier closes onto the site through his design and construction of the Cabanon and Unités de Camping.

While all films are a series of edited scenes, The Price of Desire is deliberately massively deconstructed; representing what seems like a selection of known happenings in an otherwise still obscure tale. It builds at best a theory of how Gray lost control over her work, rather than a full-blown argument. We know that, for example, E-1027 was occupied during the war and a few gunshots were taken at the wall, but beyond that nothing. If you know even a brief history of the villa you will not learn much new from The Price of Desire, and its highly stylised cinematography might just irritate you. Nevertheless, it is perfectly gentle and dreamy enough to enjoy lightly.

Gray Matters, on the other hand, is a documentary film directed by Marco Antonio Orsini that recounts Eileen Gray’s life; from her aristocratic and progressive artistic Anglo-Irish origins to her death in Paris aged 98.

Through interviews with key experts on her work and life – including architectural historian Joseph Rykwert, Christie’s senior director Philippe Garner, Centre Pompidou curator Cloé Pitiot and associate sculpture conservator at MoMA Roger Griffith among others – the documentary again starts with that famous auction but continues to discuss through images of her work why Gray has become so important and valuable; from her furniture to carpets and architecture.

In contrast to The Price of Desire, Gray Matters builds a full picture of the life she lived and how her work has been received since and today. It interviews an apprentice to Le Corbusier to assess his and Gray’s relationship with Villa E-1027, building a much more complicated and believable history than its corresponding narrative film suggests.

Gray Matters is enlightening and informative. For anyone looking to gain a better understanding of Gray, her evolving style and work through her eight-year career, and the complexity over issues of authorship, Orsini’s documentary is the best place to start.

The Price of Desire and Gray Matters are being featured in a double screening in Wirksworth and Chichester in July. To organise your own screening visit: