It must be hard being extraordinary. It’s like once the world has singled you out as being so, there’s no escaping it. All of a sudden your hours are not yours, your living becomes an act of public service. I guess everyone deals with it in their own way. It seems easier the more populist your appeal is, at least then people become more accepting of the ways that you choose to cope with it all. So long as you don’t go too hard in the public eye, you’re allowed.
We’re all just trying to live after all.
This new Alexander McQueen documentary don’t quite seem to understand that. It is rooted in disingenuity. In that grotesque capitalist way it seeks to take an artist and commoditise their death. Use the sudden scarcity of presence to sell again the one thing that they were offering up all of their life. That very life itself.
In McQueen, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui show very little interest in understanding their subject. It would get in the way of their intricately constructed hagiography. Watching it feels like a betrayal, the film never has the bravery to confront any of the forces that surrounded its subject. It wants to preserve this image, the action figure version of Britain’s bad-boy couturier. Their mythologisation doesn’t come by accident.
We are told that at his height the guy was producing and designing eight fashion shows a year. Yet the film curiously elides them, we are invited through the structure, these tenderly animated title cards, to view his life in terms of his highlights. Those shows that were his biggest, or best, the most controversial. Highland Rape, It’s a Jungle Out There, VOSS, Plato’s Atlantis. It’s the beginners guide. The film floods us with this archival while, over the soundtrack, voices tell us breathlessly how important, how influential this was.
It is unnecessarily didactic. You can feel the film chafing against its form, like a corset that it’s tied itself into. It wants to be clean and unproblematic, a troubled artist. A classical rise and fall. A brilliant young man with success forced on him too young. How a superficial and fickle industry consumed his innocence. How he drove away his true friends and became a drug user and abuser. And somehow how through it all we are expected to wonder at how he could still have this transcendent beauty inside him bursting out. Violent and unpredictable.
It’s so fucking tiresome. Insulting too. This reduction of the potentiality of human existence to a familiar form. All too make it more palatable for this presumed audience who only able to rationalise humanity when it is produced for them, meditated into some form of posthumous performance. You can see it in the trailer, when they ‘teasing’ at his ‘hidden darkness’ (and only because they withhold those interviews until they can be conveniently dropped in). They pick some unflattering image, leave it overexposed and then step frame it so he look spooky.
This effect is repeated over and over. It does not do for a documentarian to approach their material with this much judgement. It first comes out when a friend of Alexander McQueen’s speaks about his cosmetic surgery. The edit gets invasive, leering over his body, how could this man have been so misguided as to change what he had? We never hear nobody talk about the positive effects of such procedures on people with body image issues.
Likewise, is his abusive side neatly skirted over. Same with his depression. This film drives and drives at one point. ‘This is a man who changed.’ And every choice, the edit, the archival, those alienating wide angle lenses that they shoot the fashionistas’ interviews on only serves to reinforce it. It is unconscionable. A cowardly and simplistic way to depict anyone, made even more so by its rank appeal to commerciality.
I was reminded watching it of Asif Kapadia’s Amy. How it approaches an abrasive character with understanding and acceptance. Which understands her impulses and her motivations. Which feels bare and uncomfortable and honest. Would that this film have those kinda guts.
That said, you do get here a gorgeous look at many of the designs throughout his career, and there’s much interesting footage detailing his artistic process. It is regularly beautiful and compelling. While I cannot abide its misuse, I admire its immediacy.
The footage creates a living portrait of this singular, extraordinary man. The fault’s on the filmmakers for approaching it like toddlers with their safety scissors and glitter glue.
McQueen is currently screening in UK cinemas.
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