A 1970s vintage TV ad for a sophisticated, luxurious brand of cigarettes called Ralph Ultra Styles comes to life, touting its products as the perfect accompaniment to a night of drinks at a glamorous cocktail bar.
As the ad runs past its initial minute, it seems to take on a course of its own, as its lead smooth operator — the wonderfully named Luca Pistachio — spots another playboy surrounded by a bevy of ladies at a nearby table. Wanting to keep up, Luca coerces his beautiful wife Anna into bringing another woman to his table, adding to his aura of allure and dominance.
But soon this triangle becomes even more complicated than Luca can manage, as the slim narrative of the advertisement becomes a complicated rondelay of seduction, manipulation and betrayal.
Writer-director Nic Fforde, along with co-writer Giulia Watson, open this deliciously subversive tale of power, privilege and decadence with a faithful rendition of a vintage TV ad for cigarettes. Cigarette TV ads are banned now in the U.S., but back in the 60s and 70s, these ads gussied up their outrageous chauvinism and lechery with the trappings of wealth and power. Visually it’s no different here, and the re-creation of the vintage aesthetic is exquisitely done, seductive in its hazy, smoke-filled cinematography, meticulous set and costume design and hypnotic cocktail music.
Yet the writing also underlays a cheeky sense of satire underneath the visual glamour. The dialogue is all cliches of advertising slogans — heightened, aspirational and unabashed in its will to power — as are many of the performance tics, such as the smoldering looks, loaded silences and sighs of enjoyment.
The storytelling extends past satire, though, as it takes the mores of the world and characters to their logical extreme. Confined to this netherworld of fantasy, greed and power, they start to realize the consequences of their desires to consume, impress and dominate over others to prove themselves. Cliches of gesture and words take on new meaning and uses, and the stereotypes portrayed — the jealous wife, the seducer, the naif — reveal flickers of humanity.
The acting of the entire cast excellently manages a delicate and difficult balancing act here, enacting both a dated commercial style of performance with both sincerity and self-awareness, and yet delineating precise moments of emotion and decision-making to sweep audiences along into what becomes a droll and delectable comeuppance.
“Ralph Ultra Styles” in some ways resembles the video art of the 80s and 90s, which often took “found footage” of the past and re-edited it to recontextualize the unspoken societal rules encoded in its stories. And the heart of the project does use advertising’s fantasies to question how ideals of power still operate in today’s world. But the film is also highly entertaining in its sneaky yet sure-footed storytelling, with the type of wry, ironic humor that is a slow burn instead of a punchline hit.
Sumptuous, witty and well-crafted, this “ultra special” short is both devilishly fun and smartly engaged in what it means to exist in this modern world — one that is remade and resold to us in the form of fantasies that embody (or sometimes create) our deepest longings to “make it ultra.”