The beauty of Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen documentary — about the life and death of provocative fashion designer Alexander McQueen — is that it tells an emotionally complicated story with simplicity. But it also returns to three dimensions a man whom history has rendered into an archetype: the “tortured genius.”
The chronology of the McQueen documentary is basically from Lee Alexander McQueen’s graduation from Central Saint Martins in 1992 through his years at Givenchy, the startup of his own brand and his suicide in 2010. With access to hundreds of hours of archival footage, and interviews with his close associates and friends (and, later in the filming process, McQueen’s family as well), Bonhôte and Ettedgui create a show-stopping act of haute couture from the hem up.
“We wanted to make a really respectful cinematic version of Lee’s story,” Bonhôte has said. “You could go very tabloid and sensationalist, but we wanted to put his work at the film’s center, and to try to tell his life from the fashion shows. People were excited about this.”
As well they should be. The designer’s clothes — which are seen throughout the film via archival runway footage (and also in a colorful opening and closing credits sequence by the directors) — are, as a model observes, “modern and classical” yet, more than anything, they’re emotionally transparent.
“If you want to know me,” McQueen says towards the end of the film, “just look at my clothes.” (A cliché, of course, but in this case also accurate.)
While it’s true that watching nearly two hours of McQueen’s runway shows would be an amazing thing in itself, it’s the recollections of his circle of friends that brings the designer firmly down to earth (along with his own observations heard throughout). His life was wrought with darkness — it’s in the designs and the staging of collections with names such as “Highland Rape” — yet he inspired loyalty in his brand and his vision to those around him.
The McQueen documentary has a similar effect. While being seduced by McQueen’s fashions and his audacity, the filmmakers expose the vulnerabilities of a humble — some said homely — gay boy thrust from infamy to fame, then into isolating loneliness. The failed relationships, the drugs, the pressure of birthing nearly 14 collections a year: You want to reach out to the screen and offer solace, to let him know that it gets better.
But, as we all know, it didn’t. McQueen’s suicide sealed his legend. It’s hard to see his clothes without pondering the joy and, oh yes, pain that created them. Though what Bonhôte and Ettedgui pull off here is more satisfying. Even though the outcome is predetermined, the directors make us — if only for a brief moment — deeply care about the man before us.