McQueen

Review by Manuela Lazic

Directed by

Ian Bonhôte Peter Ettedgui

Starring

Alexander McQueen

Anticipation.

Alexander McQueen was one of the greatest fashion designers ever and his life was fascinating.

Enjoyment.

Seeing how tightly McQueen’s personal life was connected to his gorgeous and disturbing garments is often gobsmacking.

In Retrospect.

A generous and mostly respectful approach to a beautifully complicated and unapologetically hungry man.

The late fashion designer’s life and work makes for a compelling if complicated subject.

It is a touching tribute that composer Michael Nyman scored McQueen, a new documentary about the celebrated and sorely missed British fashion designer, as he loved to listen to Nyman’s orchestrations when working in his atelier.

The film itself follows that taste for symphonies: in under two hours, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (the latter wrote the critically acclaimed Brando doc Listen to Me Marlon) speed through the blistering life and art of their subject. Even if they occasionally verge on indulgence, their relentless filmmaking mostly succeeds at evoking Alexander McQueen’s passion, disarming generosity and eventual heart-wrenching downward spiralling.

McQueen’s extravagance isn’t a secret: “I pull these horrors out of my soul and put them on the catwalk,” he tells a group of journalists. By focussing on the man, Bonhôte and Ettedgui aim to better understand the legend, providing a frame of reference for those iconically horrifying and beautiful outfits. Many of McQueen’s closest friends/collaborators (fashion really was his whole life) give candid interviews to the camera, detailing how fascinatingly bizarre and kind he was.

Returning frequently throughout the film to discuss the evolution of their relationships with the designer, these friends are also given a lot of space for their own personalities to shine through. Instead of turning its subject into a god-like elusive being (which post-mortem artist documentaries are always at a risk of doing), the directors highlight McQueen’s humanity, framing those around him as being essential to building his identity.

An impressive amount of television and home movie footage from the time allows us see McQueen speak in his own words and behave naturally. Aged only 23 when his MA show at the prestigious Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design put him on the map, the South London-born, working-class designer had a childishness and punk spirit that also came through in his work.

This symbiosis between his jubilant personality and his outrageous creations explains his vertiginous rise to cult status, and the film reaches emotional highs when it revels in this magical formula: when McQueen watches robotic arms spray-paint a DIY dress for the splendid finale of his 1999 spring/summer show No. 13, his tears are also ours for they are so clearly the direct product of his eccentric mind and personal history.

McQueen mostly avoids didactic conjunctions between the designer’s life and work. The film’s structure into chapters, however, harms its otherwise unrestrained embracing of his complexity. Tacky CGI title cards show skulls covered with blooming then crumbling flowers which represent McQueen’s rise and fall, and delineate periods in his life. On top of slowing down the exhilarating rhythm of such a full existence, this cheap narrative device is distasteful.

McQueen had every right to compose his own departure as he pleased (he became obsessed with skulls in his later shows and fantasised about taking his own life on the catwalk). When Bonhôte and Ettedgui do so, and after the fact, they provide too neat a conclusion for a life so ill-suited to comfortable boundaries.

Published 5 Jun 2018

Tags: Alexander McQueen

Anticipation.

Alexander McQueen was one of the greatest fashion designers ever and his life was fascinating.

Enjoyment.

Seeing how tightly McQueen’s personal life was connected to his gorgeous and disturbing garments is often gobsmacking.

In Retrospect.

A generous and mostly respectful approach to a beautifully complicated and unapologetically hungry man.

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