The editor of Quality fashion magazine, Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), is enduring a professional crisis when it's clear the publication is about to fail the American woman; they need something new. And that thing, she decides on the spur of the moment, is "pink!", all the new clothes must be pink for the new issue. But is it enough? How about a new face of fashion too? Maggie heads for the studio of famed photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire), who is trying and failing to shoot a model (Dovima) in an intellectual manner until he happens upon an idea: photograph her in a bookshop!
And what an idea that turns out to be, as the assistant in the bookshop they settle for is none other than Audrey Hepburn - well, she's Audrey playing a character called Jo Stockton in actuality, but she is the star to all intents and purposes, and at her most fascinating into the bargain. Scripted by Leonard Gershe and blessed with a George and Ira Gershwin songs, Funny Face strived for class and achieved it, up to the second half at any rate when the levity hit a sour note designed to put French philosophers in their too clever by half place.
Too clever for American audiences of the day, or that's the gist of the humour that ends the film. Whether that was true or not, it's as if Funny Face was a way of denigrating the just-dawning French New Wave, stating this is how we make those films you love so much you pretentious Cahiers du Cinema critics! The high-falutin' talk of the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre is patently a way of obscuring that fact that you have found a new way of getting impressionable women into bed! But Jo's idealism - it's not Sartre she follows but a soundalike called Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair) - is part of what makes her so attractive.
I can't be the only one who finds Hepburn in her pre-model guise preferrable here, but the plot demands that she be given a makeover when Dick accidentally notices how photogenic she is. He has found the face of the new season and with a lot of cajoling (meaning he persuades her with his dance moves) they are soon off to Paris where she wants to immerse herself in beatnik cafe culture and he wants to take some great pictures. They find a happy medium as Astaire's Richard Avedon-inspired shutterbug discovers that he does indeed love Hepburn's "funny face", as the song goes.
And she grows to love him, but the course of true love never did run smooth so there have to be complications. Adding to the thrall Hepburn holds the audience in is that she sings in her own voice, and is therefore far more spellbinding than she ever would be in My Fair Lady. Astaire's effortless charm is also a bonus, and though together they might not be convincing partners (that age difference is difficult to ignore), when they dance you can set aside whatever reservations you may otherwise have. Also worth noting is the amusing presence of Thompson in a rare screen appearance, setting a nicely acerbic tone to a film that might be oversweet in other hands. What threatens to let everything down is that inverted snobbery, but under Stanley Donen's expert direction you can buy the contrivances for as long as the film lasts.