McQueen documentary review: the tragedy of the fashion provocateur

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McQueen green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

There’s so much fresh air in this stunningly good biography that it feels like you’ve never encountered a rags-to-riches, tortured-artist story before. Not just for fashion lovers.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): so not interested in fashion
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

A model, Shalom Harlow, in a simple white dress rotates on a turntable while robotic arms spray-paint the garment in striking swaths of black and chartreuse. This sequence in McQueen had me in tears of joy and wonder, and I honestly have no idea why. Visually, it’s shocking and striking and probably the last thing you’d expect to see on a fashion runway, so perhaps it was the surprise that moved me? I don’t know much about fashion and have about as much interest in it as I have in, oh, professional sports: very little, and what there is tends toward the anthropological, the “Isn’t it fascinating how much stock some people put in this?” And yet this phenomenal new documentary about bad-boy fashion designer Alexander McQueen does such a stunningly good job of immersing you in his world that when this moment arrives toward the end of the film — it occurred at a 1999 show — you instinctively understand how important it is, how it was a sort of culmination of McQueen’s aesthetic (though he still had lots more work to do), and how it beautifully represents his impact on fashion and on the culture at large.

McQueen attacking his own work with shrewd ruthlessness.
McQueen attacking his own work with shrewd ruthlessness.

Clichés abound in McQueen’s life: the rags-to-riches rise (he was from a working-class London background); the tortured artist (he was “a very troubled person” and committed suicide in 2010). Yet first-time documentary filmmaker Ian Bonhôte and writer and codirector Peter Ettedgui breathe so much fresh air into their biography that it feels like you haven’t heard similar stories before. They even find pointed cultural criticism in the familiar sweep of McQueen’s tale. It wasn’t just “the exciting creativity of the mid 90s” — as fashion journalist and McQueen supporter Isabella Blow deemed it at the time — that fueled his career: it was financial desperation. He bought fabric with his dole (ie, unemployment) money, stretched £500 to make 30 pieces of clothing, and had to hide his face during TV interviews even as he was starting to make a splash at London Fashion Week because he wasn’t supposed to be working as a condition of his government benefits. His work at that time may have been earning him notoriety, but it wasn’t earning him any money, and the necessity of his tricksiness is a hard smack at the lack of societal support for the arts and artists at the beginning of their careers.

The unsettling impact that McQueen had on the fashion industry — he refused to blend in to the snooty culture, and was pretty frumpy and unfashionable himself — and the provocations of McQueen’s runway shows — the implied violence, the deliberate ugliness, the often apocalyptic mood — are one and the same here. McQueen becomes a deeply engaging portrait of a man who was so much more than a designer of clothing. He was wielder of multimedia art as a weapon, a cultural court jester who eventually succumbed, it seems, to the same dark forces his work denounced: intense pressure to conform, physically and spiritually, and a disconnection from others. Vintage footage — including charming VHS video from his early working life that he jokes on camera is “the original documentary on Alexander McQueen” — and very frank interviews with family, friends, and coworkers (who often fill all those positions at once) reveal a man who could be difficult, secretive, and unkind. McQueen never excuses or justifies his bad side by invoking his incredibly fertile creativity, or the fact that, as one friend says, he “was a romantic,” in all senses of the word. But this is a powerfully sympathetic film nevertheless, one that achieves the remarkable feat of showing how a complicated and contradictory person might be, rather paradoxically, easy to understand… though perhaps only in retrospect.

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