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McQueen’s dark fairytale

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Why is the genius and tragedy of the late British designer so compelling? Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui on the documentary that premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend

Think of Lee Alexander McQueen, one of Britain’s most brilliant and fearless designers, and the mind instantly recalls ‘skulls’, his emblem. Then there are his show-stopping creations, all born of a febrile imagination and showcased on the runway with caged wolves, spray guns and life-sized plush animal suits. I recall being taken aback by his stunning work at Savage Beauty in 2015, the exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert museum remounted from 2011. It went on to become its most successful show, with over 4,90,000 tickets sold across 21 weeks. Who was this man, and what of the mind that dwelled within, I remember asking myself then. Well, a new documentary, succinctly named McQueen, might have some of the answers, as it introduces the legend to a new audience.

McQueen’s dark fairytale

Having premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, it explores the legend through rare archival footage and interviews. Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui venture into McQueen’s early years in fashion, and take us through his world riddled with controversy, right up till his suicide in 2010 on the eve of his mother’s funeral. He was just 40. “On the surface, it may seem like a fashion film, but Lee’s life story in how he got to where he was, is amazing. In fact, I moved to London in the ’90s in part because of McQueen. His sense of style became synonymous with the city’s raw energy and edginess,” says Bonhôte, forthright in his opinion of the troubled genius. “Designers are interested in selling; Lee, however, was truly expressive which a lot of people found scary at first. This is why we wanted the shows and his personality at the centre of each chapter,” he continues. The documentary thus encompasses six key runway shows from McQueen’s life, from his grad shows at Central Saint Martins to his 2010 Palais Omnisports show after fashion editor Isabella Blow’s death.

Coming up
  • New York-based production house Maven Pictures’ The Ripper and His Muse will follow the 1992 ‘Ripper’ show by McQueen, where Blow first laid eyes on his moving creations. It will explore how their volatile relationship was born.

Demolishing the rules

I spoke with Bonhôte and Ettedgui ahead of Tribeca. The duo has their names attached to darker-themed projects; Bonhôte to The Witch and Ettedgui to Listen To Me, Brando. In appearances they may look mismatched — with the former personifying Cool Britannia and the latter with his suit and tie — but the synchronicity of the project proves otherwise. “We see a young, gay, working-class Londoner who loved going out and was very resourceful. He was inspired by S&M, club nights and everyday materials like plastic. These were things people didn’t think belonged on a catwalk, but he didn’t care. These are the early days you’ll see upon watching the film,” says Bonhôte.

McQueen’s dark fairytale

Ettedgui describes how they were prepared for the kind of emotions they would be showcasing, sharing, “We had a global overview of where we were going with the emotional foundation and we just had to think how the archive would work around that. Of course, we were surprised by what some of it revealed but, in general, they still showcased Lee’s joy in creating, while still aligned with the darkness with which he struggled.”

Incidentally, both directors refer to him as Lee throughout the interview (while friends preferred Lee, it was McQueen’s mentor and darling of the beau monde, Blow, who insisted on the more sophisticated ‘Alexander’).

Call of a prodigy

As can be expected, the film has come in for much praise, with Vogue saluting it for the ‘eye-welling, spine-tingling emotion of [McQueen’s] most memorable shows’. At the première, McQueen’s sister, Janet, who had seen the film twice, said, “It is quite overwhelming because it’s really emotional”.

And Screendaily stated, “While the film might not quite match the blockbuster status of Savage Beauty, it seems likely to be one of the more successful fashion-themed releases of recent years.”

McQueen’s dark fairytale

But McQueen’s darkness is inescapable. “Without that skeleton, there was no way to suspend the story,” Bonhôte adds, “and I think this is what sets McQueen apart from other documentaries.” To him, the scariest part was not knowing much about the personal life prior to the project. “We started from a blank canvas and the script Peter had brainstormed,” he recalls, “and it’s not like people wanted to talk to us, or that we had loads of archives with which to start, or that someone approached us. We only knew we wanted to make it quite visual.”

Ettedgui tacks on that as filmmakers they are constantly on the lookout for fantastic subjects. “We both knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was an extraordinary kind of prodigy, he was somebody who marked a traditional craft as a tailor and exploded that mastery in hundreds of thousands of different innovations and concepts within fashion.”

Behind the scenes
  • Bonhôte acknowledges that while international broadcasters’ footage mixed well with personal finds, there is still a bounty of unfound media to be unearthed. “We did discover some special things where Lee was very candid and honest about his troubled life, which we used stylistically in the film… we had a number of film archives and then great photographs from Gary Wallace and others. Knowing how to treat and merge them into a visually stunning film was a process.”

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 3:43:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/a-new-documentary-mcqueen-premieres-at-tribeca-film-festival/article23695784.ece

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