Montag, 3. September 2018

McQueen

While I consider myself a fan of cinematic documentaries, I often find myself feeling faintly unfulfilled by those dealing with the life and times of a celebrity. Perhaps it's unfair to feel this way, as it's nearly impossible to approach these films in an unbiased way, seeing how their subjects are usually widely mediated public figures.

Still, thinking back to films in this vein – Asif Kapadia's Amy (2015), say, or Wim Wenders' Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (2018) – I struggle to muster up any kind of lingering emotional response. But take works like Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog (2015), Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson (2016), Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Yance Ford's Strong Island (2017), or Regina Schilling's Kulenkampffs Schuhe (2018) – personal journeys, intimate histories, and politically charged biographies – and I still feel their visceral impact.

This is the frame of mind in which I saw McQueen, the documentary about the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui. It is a movie very much in the Kapadia mold – highly informative and deeply invested in its protagonist's ultimately tragic life. In fact, Amy may well be its closest analogue stylistically as well as narratively.

Like the Amy Winehouse portrait, McQueen casts its spotlight on a working-class Londoner who found fame thanks to a combination of phenomenal talent, hard work, and sheer brazenness – and who died prematurely, scarred by depression, substance abuse, and the unforgiving demands of stardom. And although Lee Alexander McQueen was 14 years Winehouse's senior, he, like her, was surrounded by cameras from the very beginning of his career. This is a documentarian's dream, and Bonhôte and Ettedgui make ample use of what looks like a considerable archive of home movies from the early and mid-1990s, showing a young McQueen finding his feet in the competitive world of fashion.

In these early years, which the movie lays out in a lot of detail, the audience, with the help of interviews with friends and contemporaries, gets to know a likeable subversion of both the Britpop era's "new lad" figure and the stereotype of the devoted fashionista. McQueen – "Lee" to his friends and family – loves a raunchy joke but doesn't exhibit the toxic tendencies of post-Thatcherite masculinity. He came out as gay at 18, against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. In 1996, he arrived at Givenchy – an unpretentious larger-bodied London lad, friends/co-workers in tow, taking on the traditionalist, etiquette-loving world of haute couture. It's these passages that prove the film's most compelling, not least because of the raw, authentic video insights into McQueen's life at that time.

Fashion designer Alexander McQueen, pictured with his mother Joyce.
© Ascot Elite
As the movie progresses, things become sketchier – coinciding with McQueen's becoming more insular. Developments like his liposuction treatment or his cocaine habit are addressed but hardly dwelt upon. Interviewees are increasingly reduced to psychologising the man, while Bonhôte and Ettedgui attempt to forge connections between anecdotes and the fashion shows that divide their subject's life into chapters. There is an argument to be made that this approach actually does a disservice to McQueen, as the harsh, fickle nature of the fashion business undoubtedly exacerbated his personal problems. His long-time friend and mentor, London fashion queen Isabella Blow, who killed herself in 2007, partly attributed her depression to her age, which she identified as the cause of her waning professional influence. (McQueen himself would take his own life in 2010.)

Nevertheless, McQueen remains interesting, engaging and, thanks to the contributions of the broad range of McQueen familiars it features, moving throughout. It may never really escape its conventionality, but it's hard to fault it for that. Still, for all its competence, I can already feel it slipping from my memory.

★★★

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