Selfridges unveils its first cinema ad in 40 years: “It’s Dalí meets Ken Russell”

Taking the theme Radical Luxury, Selfridges has launched a Surrealist-influenced 60-second film shot by director and photographer Norbert Schoerner.

The film is set to be shown in a selection of cinemas across London, Birmingham and Manchester, and through a mixture of computer generated imagery, stock footage and live action looks to explore the meaning of “luxury”.

At the very start of the process, Schoerner decided to garner feedback from a wide ranging group of people from “designers to housewives”, to partners of Selfridges, on what luxury means to them. “When we started working on the concept and talking about Radical Luxury, I found the idea overwhelming — it’s a big statement,” says the director. “So the best starting point was just to go out there and speak to people from across the board in a very genuine way to understand what luxury means to them.

“It’s almost become a swear word — these days you can get ‘luxury’ ice cream and ‘luxury’ toilet paper, so we had to be very careful in using the word luxury.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common response to what people considered to be truly luxurious was time. Temporality, therefore, is at the heart of the film, as we veer between the past and the present through an often tongue-in-cheek lens of luxury.

Opening with a retro-futuristic pair of lips, haloed by neon against a hazy outer space gridded backdrop, we enter a world where perspective is constantly shifting with a collage of imagery from paradisiacal palm trees to rockets, whopping bars of gold, glamorous women and champagne flutes. Old Hollywood glamour soon collides in a burst of CG shapes with ultramodern Selfridges signifiers, as we’re catapulted into strange digital realms that move from interior to exterior in rapid, disorientating jolts.

“We were using the clichés of the language of old luxury, with things like the champagne glasses and hotel elevators,” says Schoerner.

Knowing references to art and cinema history loom large. Magritte’s famous image of a person with an apple for a head is among the Surrealist assembly cast, while other references for art lovers and cinephiles to look out for are Kubrick (note the grid), Powell & Pressburger and May Ray. These jostle alongside the sort of vapourwave aesthetic (though Schoerner hates that word) proliferated by sites like 2chan and 4chan and within gamer communities. “There’s a bit of Duchamp too, in the idea of reassembling different fragments into surreal contexts,” says Schoerner. “And Dalí obviously, with the stairs that start in the sky. It’s Dalí meets Ken Russell.”

The spot provided a thrilling and unusual challenge for the director in the fact it’s aimed at cinemas, rather than TV or social campaigns. That meant a lot of scope to work with sound in interesting ways, and a sense of the (ahem) relative luxury of time that viewers have in a cinema context, as opposed to a rushed phone screen scroll. “You can lead them on a journey that can lead to an experience you can only really have in a cinema,” says Schoerner, “so screen ratio and the scale were key ideas for us, and we based that journey on the Kubrick grid as it’s rather graphic and has a sort of natural affinity for the human eye in that slightly wider angle. It had to be more rooted in cinema than lifestyle or social media.” The music is provided by composer and sound designer Mimi Xu.

As with much of Schoerner’s work, the ad is hyperactive in its use of CGI and shiny digital playthings. But for the director, these are tools rather than deliberate stylistic choices: “It’s a tool I use to tell a story, so I employ different techniques to bring a narrative across.

“There’s a craft aspect I’m really interested in with my work. I think the whole aesthetic of the real and the artificial, deconstructed image-making is a reaction to a society that’s maybe disappeared into its own artifice.”

The film is the centrepiece of Selfridges’ wider Radical Luxury campaign. This also includes a physical customer experience at Selfridges’ old hotel on Orchard Street, central London, called the Flipside. This will be a multi-sensory journey into altered states of luxury” according to Selfridges, designed in collaboration with brands including Google Pixel 2, Louis Vuitton, Loewe and Thom Browne. Selfridges is also launching an out-of-home campaign between 23 April and 20 May across print and digital six-sheets and large-format executions across  London, Birmingham and Manchester. Some of the outdoor site touchpoints will use Shazam technology to allow users to access a digital ‘Selfridges hub’ featuring content about the campaign.

The Radical Luxury film will be shown between 20 April – 19 May on screens at Everyman & Curzon, Picturehouse, The Barbican, DCM and Pearl & Dean Cinemas across London, Birmingham and Manchester.