Nars | Unknown Beauty: François Nars

In conversation with beauty mogul François Nars and filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland on the documentary that captures the archival documentary

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Marc Jacobs, Lauren Hutton, Charlotte Rampling, and Jane Birkin are some of the longtime friends and muses showcased in the visual essay-type documentary about renowned makeup artist and photographer François Nars. A rich and unique archival experience, “I don’t think that there is a film out there that exists that has as many featured films in it as this one does,” says Lisa Immordino, director of the documentary film. 

In Unknown Beauty: François Nars, Nars takes the viewer on a tour of the fashion of '70s Paris, the underground of '90s New York, and the timeless world of cinema that has shaped his visual aesthetics. Displaying the depths of his mind, Nars reveals his visually stunning inner world. Out September 12, 2023, Unknown Beauty offers never-before-seen archival footage capturing François’ childhood and early years as a makeup artist, and features dozens, if not hundreds, of images, videos, and clips to explain his discovery of and his relationship with beauty. A dream come true for Nars, who as a kid, was one of Charlotte Rampling’s biggest fans, the film is equally narrated by Rampling and Nars, almost as in dialogue. 

François Nars was born in Tarbes in the South of France and grew up influenced by his mother Claudette, his first muse, who helped him acquire his first job as an assistant to some of Paris' top makeup artists. In 1984, after graduating from Carita Makeup School in Paris, Nars made the move to New York City to create some of the most beautiful magazine editorials for Vogue, Vogue Italia, and Elle. In 1994, he created NARS Cosmetics with extreme success. NARS is now known and sold worldwide. 

With a photographic memory, Nars forgets absolutely nothing. Images he first saw at 11 years old are portrayed in the film as his biggest inspiration. He still holds his French Vogue closest to his heart. And with the help of Immordino, the most beautiful images from his mind have come to the screen. “We found each other,” explains Nars of how the idea began. 

Lisa Immordino Vreeland is a filmmaker and writer known for her documentaries and accompanying books. Her first of the kind was Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, which came out in 2011, about the renowned Vogue editor, who happens to be her grandmother-in-law. Then, in 2015,  she created Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, the documentary about the heiress who transformed a modest fortune into one of the premier art collections of the twentieth century, and later, in 2017, Love, Cecil, about Cecil Beaton, a notable fashion and portrait photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, best known for his set and costume design for “My Fair Lady.” Now she is out to show “the richness of Mr. Nars’ mind.” 

FLAUNT sat down with Nars and Immordino themselves to talk about the magic of the film and the need for curiosity while watching. 

Who found who, and who made the decision to make this film?

François: We found each other. We knew each other for a while before the film. I was actually asked to make a documentary on me and my life–it didn't really come directly from me. It’s always very hard for me personally to talk about myself, so I had never done that exercise before. I felt like the only person I wanted to do this film with was Lisa. So the choice was easy, because there was really only one choice. I felt very comfortable doing this with Lisa. It became quite a process, because, of course, when you talk about yourself, and your world, the people you love, it becomes quite complicated and a little bit mad, to make sure you don’t forget anybody, you don’t forget anything. 

The great thing about working with Lisa was the fact that we have the same vision on many, many subjects: cinema, fashion, literature. We are on the same track on all those things, so it was quite easy to catch the same train. It was quite intense as well, as you can imagine, the movie is so rich with so many images. 

Lisa: Of course I knew Francois because I had worked in the fashion world before and I was really honored when he asked me to do it. For me, the biggest challenge was the fact that all the films I’ve done have been on people who are dead. He is, as the French say, trés vivant. 

François: Knock on wood. Is there any wood here?

Lisa: Exactly. No, but, the thing is, it has its challenges. It also has been such a great collaboration, because we both have a lot of the same preferences and same passions, and it’s a great situation because I learned a lot from Francois in the whole process. He has this photographic memory of things, so specific scenes have been imprinted on his mind that has become so much a part of what he’s done, all of his work, and those are things that are uncanny. He would be like ‘No, no, her hand was like this, not that.’ There’s a precision to it. So it was a really nice collaboration. 

François: She says that now. But she had to sit through a little bit of hell. 

Lisa: But you know what? The fact is that a film has so many different challenges, and when you have to say final cut–you never really want to say final cut. That is the hardest thing, especially for something like this, because we are not trying to tell a story. That’s the point. We are trying to show the richness of what’s inside of Mr. Nars’ mind, and it’s a very, very different thing. When we decided to do a visual essay, we really mapped it out as a visual essay, from the very beginning, because we literally had an essay. We wrote Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and that’s the way we thought about it. Then we created the transitions between all of the pieces. But we needed to enter into all of these different worlds to be able to have a conversation. And although we are speaking about the question that is trying to be answered, ultimately it is not fully answered, but it’s his discovery and his relationship with beauty.  Ultimately, it’s not answered in the end, because he’s out there still, being rediscovered in different ways, but you have to know how he has traveled through all of his life so far. And he is sharing that with us. And I have to tell you, for someone in your generation, I am sure that you saw some things when you saw the film that you were amazed by, that’s what’s exciting about this, it’s being able to make this an educational experience for people. 

François: I think it’s a great book of images, turning the pages of a book, but on screen. That’s what’s fun about the documentary. 

What did the process of making it look like? How long did it take to decide what was going to be showcased? The specific videos and the people portrayed in them? 

François: We worked very hard on everything together. I had to remember all the major moments, the major films, major books, major people that marked my adolescence and childhood, and really try to put the whole puzzle together. Like Lisa said, in different chapters while also trying to make it coherent. As a film, it was a challenge because I had so many memories and so many things that were so important to me, that helped me build my vision of beauty, and eventually also what I built with NARS. It was quite a lot. 

Lisa: It was, and it was a matter of wanting to tell the whole story. We are telling the story in a very different way this time, so there is really not a narrative that is pronounced around the film that is talking about Mr. Nars’ life. But he went in this direction and it’s actually fantastic, and thank god that it’s not like that. 

François: I didn’t really want an obvious interview-type documentary about me, where you constantly see me talking to the camera. I felt like that had been done, many times by many people, and I felt like what was most interesting for the new generations like you to see what really brought me here. Where I am today in my life and what I have built over the years. So that process of showing instead of telling, I thought was very fun. Instead of only talking and constantly just seeing myself. And I thought Lisa created it beautifully. 

Lisa: But we know it’s great, we’ve seen it millions of times, but did you feel like you knew Mr. Nars at the end of this?

I went in expecting something completely different, and I was very happily surprised. At the end, I believe, I have an idea of who you are, your essence. But not quite your story. I know who you are in a different way than purely factual. 

François: Yes, you don’t know my everyday life, where I go to eat or what my favorite coffee shop is. 

Lisa: But that doesn’t matter. 

François: All of that we can say on social media. I didn’t want to go in that direction. To me, the film tells a lot more about who I am than my address or my favorite spot.  


Lisa: The fact is that the references of the poetry that is read, the images of things showcased, the fact that he said the artists he loved and then we went into a deep dive in finding the right words that worked for them. It’s very, very intimate. Especially the passage of his childhood. It’s done in a very touching way, and it’s clear the importance family has had on him. You know, he is very close to his parents, and you can feel it in the film. 

Yes, the love it shows for your mother is incredible. 

François: I think that says a lot about me already. When I talk I really explain how important my childhood was and how much love there was. 

Lisa: Kind of going back to the question that you had asked about imagery and what to use and what not to use, I mean, there is such a wealth of material out there, and often films aren’t allowed to use, or they don’t use as much as we have. And not only do we have so much cinema in here, but we have such a beautiful variety. Our main source in France was INA, and there’s so much material there, and we wanted to show off some of these old shows, just these great clips from Jane Birkin to Charlotte Rampling, and just these moments that no one has seen. 

François: They are all buried. 

Lisa: No, and then to see them all assembled in one place. That’s what’s rare. That’s why archivally this film has huge importance because there is so much that has been placed in there. Actually, I don’t think that there is a film out there that exists that has as many featured films in it as this one does. 

How difficult was it to acquire the material?

Lisa: Oh, very. 

François: Extremely. 

Lisa: It was absolutely obscene. And it’s so nice to see these textile spreadsheets with all green lines, which means it’s all been done, it’s all approved. It was a huge challenge. But such satisfaction to have it all done. 

François: You know the film, in 10, 20, 40, 50 years, when eventually I am gone, it will really tell a lot about what François loved. What inspired him since he was a kid to adulthood. I think it will be a great archive for whoever will handle NARS at the time, in 50, 60 years, when we are all gone. I think the film will remain for a long, long time in the company. 

Lisa: Without a doubt. 

If you could summarize it into a word, what would be the message you would want someone to walk away from the film with? 

François: Education. For people to learn something, and we make them excited to go dig more. Into watching the movies showcased there or to search up the old Vogue covers from 1984 or 1973. Just that we actually tease people into digging into the archive and discover something. 

Lisa: I think my word is curiosity. 

François: That’s a good one.

Lisa: You have to be curious because this is literally a time capsule. There are a lot of documentaries that are being made now, but there are not that many focused on arts and culture, and creativity, and the fact is that Francois is a creative force. To understand the wheels that made him create the brand, the photographs, it all comes from somewhere, and it comes from these references that people don’t know today. It’s nice to be able to have a platform to exhibit them. Sometimes these references are very subtle because this film is for a very sophisticated audience. It is. The reason why the credits of the film are so intensely academic is because they should know, people should know what the words were, who they came from. It’s important to see and contextualize what’s out there. People can go look. They can look up every shot that we used in there. It’s super academic and I loved doing that.

François: Also, one extremely important element of the film is the fact that we got Charlotte Rampling to do all the narration throughout the whole movie, which is quite incredible because, for me, as a kid, I was one of Charlotte Rampling’s biggest fans. I discovered her when I was 11 years old, so having her, and doing almost like a dialogue between me and her, it’s a dream come true.

Lisa: She was so gracious, and when she was looking at all of her dialogue, at all of her lines, she said ‘These are such good words.’ She is a smart woman so she also recognized that this is so thoughtfully put together. It was something that she really admired. She was amazing. It was really nice to be in a room with her. 

François: And she has the greatest voice. 

Lisa: We were sitting on her bed in her guest room. Not bad. 

François: Not bad. 

Did you write the words together?

François: Yes, most of the words, but of course we always exchanged opinions on what we thought about them. 

Lisa: We are sitting far apart right now, but we are usually much closer. 

François: We are usually on top of each other practically. 

I want to talk more about your mother. She is basically the main character in the film. 

François: She was my first, and greatest, inspiration when it came to beauty. I was a lucky boy to have such an amazing beauty as a mother. I really believe everyone has in them the drive for beauty. Some people have it more than others. I, myself, since the age of 5, as soon as I can remember, I was attracted to beauty. Of course, having a mother who looked like that made beauty even more obvious to me. And probably influenced me to go into the beauty business in my work, go towards a job directly linked to beauty. It was really amazing to have her as a mother. She was always very supportive of my work. Always believed in me, always trusted me, when at 12 or 13 years old, I said ‘no, don’t wear this’ or ‘wear this, it’s better’ and ‘wear your hair like this.’’ I was like her director, but you know, she really believed in me, from day 1. She could feel that I had it in me. She could trust me. I was very, very lucky. What else can I say? She is amazing. 

One thing that sparked my attention was that you started putting makeup on your mom, In most cases, when we are young we see our mothers putting makeup on themselves, and ask them to put it on us. 

François: My mother didn’t really wear so much makeup, it wasn’t her thing. She always liked women that didn’t wear that much makeup. To her, it was more chic, more elegant. This was great because it really taught me how to be careful, later, when I created my brand, and before, when I was applying makeup on models, to be, not subtle, because that doesn’t reflect what I was doing, but more sensitive about respecting women’s faces. Not just painting them like a mannequin, but trying to reveal the beauty of their soul. 

She was a great teacher in that way. She taught me not to use too much foundation, which, afterwards helped me create great formulas for NARS, that would help women to look better but not by wearing a mask. 

How do you approach doing makeup? What’s the most important thing when putting makeup on someone?

François: I realized over the 40 years or more that I’ve done makeup on everyone, actresses, singers, models, it doesn’t matter, when they look in the mirror at the end, they want to look beautiful. I think that’s the number 1 wish of women, mostly all women, all over the world. But women in general, they want to look beautiful, and that I think was always my guideline. No matter what I did, or what makeup I chose, I would always make sure that they looked beautiful, that they looked better than when they arrived. Sometimes makeup can destroy. That was always key for me. And I think that’s why people really love my makeup. 

Lisa: If you look at the New York chapter, you will see Linda and Christie, and they look magical, and that’s all his makeup. We don’t write it anywhere but it’s very clear that he did it. And it’s unbelievable. 

François: It’s about respect. It really is about loving women. I feel today some people don’t love women enough. They don’t appreciate their beauty, and they just want to make a statement. And this could go for designers too. It’s not necessarily only linked to makeup. But the fact is that you have to respect and love women. I think you have to put yourself in a second place, and not always be on the front line being like ‘look what I did.’ I think today you see that a lot. 

What would be your number one tip for anyone trying to better their makeup abilities?

François: Less is more. It’s a classic. But it says it all. 

Looking back, what is your proudest achievement?

François: Of course, working on this movie with Lisa. That was a thrill because I am letting everyone into my universe. And creating NARS, of course. It’s every makeup artist’s dream. To have your own brand. And to be so successful. When I created the brand, I had no idea if it was going to be successful. I had no idea it would become the huge empire it is today. It’s known all over the planet. And it’s amazing that I do what I love. It’s the greatest achievement to say that. The biggest luxury in life is to be able to do what you love. 

Going into this film, what was your intent and how does it compare to the final project?

Lisa: Actually, it’s funny because I take on so many different projects, so I try to be malleable, and I knew that this was going to be very different and challenging. 

François: I can be a lot. 

Lisa: But, in the end, we had a lot of laughs. 

François: We laughed a lot. 

Lisa: Too much, probably. On my expectations, I didn’t think it would be a traditional film, and, you know, I might be older, but it’s not like my career has been in filmmaking. I’ve worked in fashion and other things. And as a filmmaker, I am still learning. I am learning about a lot of different things every day. And this brought me in a completely different direction. When we both decided that it was going to be an essay, I was so excited. Also, with a lot of the things that I do I like to get into the nitty-gritty of archival research, and I like all of those super pedantic things because I like the idea that in cinema you always have a lesson. That it’s useful and informative at the same time as entertaining. And I think that is really important, and this was the perfect example of being able to do that. And we used beautiful words for the most important French poets, we have used the most beautiful films in the history of cinema. 

François: And of real cinema. Because we forget today what that means. 

Lisa: It’s very true. And I don’t know what my expectations were because I tend to do my own thing. I don’t work with a lot of producers. I just feel like if I am going to do something, I am going to do it the way I want to do it. And if his world was different from my world, I think this would’ve been different and more difficult, but it wasn’t. And that’s what’s nice. 

François: No because you knew all the culture and the background. 

Lisa: I can still use some culture. 

François: Well…Without knowing all the specific images that I loved from the 70’s, you still get it. That’s the most important part. 

Lisa: And then we also knew what we wanted each of the actors or actresses to express. We knew the words that we wanted. We knew the emotional moments. For instance, every time I even see the end of the film, the chapter was called “The Men and Women I’ve Loved,” and you don’t see that anywhere written in the film but I still have that little tug in my heart, because it is very much François, and I feel like there is something sad and very beautiful about it, because it is also about a different era completely, as we see all this imagery of these worlds. And it’s so nice to be able to bring it out there. 

François: And it’s images that stick with me until today. It’s incredible how what I saw when I was 11 years old is still so present for me today, and is still in my library, in my brain, as an inspiration. I remember exactly the first time I opened a French Vogue, I remember going to a magazine stand with my mother and buying that specific French Vogue and really turning the pages and remembering those images exactly. All those images are still so present in me today. I forget nothing. 

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NARS, François Nars, Unknown Beauty: François Nars, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, People, Constanza Falco Raez, Flaunt Magazine,