“McQueen” is an intriguing look at genius, its inspiration and ultimately its cost.
The film, co-directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, suffers a bit from its conventionality; surely something a little more daring would be appropriate for a subject this colorful. Luckily that subject is so original, his work so striking, that he makes up for it.
That would be Alexander McQueen, a trailblazing fashion designer who grew up the son of a taxi driver to scale the heights of haute couture, attracting praise, criticism and controversy along the way.
Even to the untrained eye, McQueen’s designs were daring, provocative, demanding to be seen — his student show at Central St. Martins art school in London was called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” You may not like them, but you can’t ignore them.
And a lot of people, including the people running fashion houses, liked them a lot.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui trace McQueen’s life in chronological order for the most part, making extensive use of the footage he and his friends seemed to shoot of nearly everything. His mother didn’t care for her son’s later suggestions that he grew up poor, saying that he didn’t. But the two were close — he hung himself, at age 40, the night before her funeral.
In between his rise was meteoric, to say the least. By his own admission McQueen wasn’t much of a student: He drew clothes in every class, no matter what the subject. He worked for tailors on Savile Row, cutting fabric, before moving to Italy, despite being broke and not speaking Italian. From there it was back to London for school, where the late Isabella Blow, who had a knack for discovering design talent, bought all the clothes from the “Jack the Ripper” show.
He continued designing, using unemployment checks to buy fabric. (In one funny bit he talks about not being able to show his face on-camera, because the unemployment folks would realize he was working.)
Then, seemingly out of the blue, Givenchy, the famed design house, named him creative director. Perhaps predictably, he struggled with the pressures of running a house with that stature, and with his first show seemingly thumbed his nose at tradition — something the fashion media didn’t take kindly to.
But McQueen’s work continued to enthrall. His shows were events, often controversial. He was rich and famous. Yet his friends and family note that he was happier when he wasn’t making any money, when he was pulling items out of the trash and using them in his creations. Compounding the problem: More money meant more drugs.
He changed his appearance, losing a lot of weight. It was as if, in nearly every sense, he was losing touch with who he once was, and it clearly wasn’t making him happy.
We learn all this in straightforward fashion. It’s interesting, certainly, but not as scintillating as you’d hope. The filmmakers do make good use of McQueen’s skull designs, perhaps what he’s best known for. We see bits and pieces of the shows that helped define him. But we don’t see a lot of where the creative spark comes from, other than McQueen telling someone ideas just come to him at the last minute, as if from “God or something.”
Happily, McQueen — along with his work — is magnetic enough to fill in the blanks.
Bleecker Street presents a documentary directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui. No MPAA rating. Running time: 111 minutes. Now showing at Landmark Century Centre.