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Review: McQueen documentary is the best of the many fashion movies this year

The late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, left, is the subject of a fascinating documentary portrait. (Ann Ray / Bleecker Street Media)
The late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, left, is the subject of a fascinating documentary portrait. (Ann Ray / Bleecker Street Media)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

There are two Alexander McQueens in “McQueen,” the fascinating documentary portrait of the acclaimed fashion designer, who committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 40.

One is the eternally boyish McQueen we see on-screen, in both archival footage of media interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses of his creative process. That McQueen – “Lee,” as this product of London’s East End was called by those who knew him, using his first name, and not the somewhat grander middle one he adopted for his clothing brand – resembles a pudgy child prodigy: brilliant, prone to button-pushing but pleasantly down-to-earth, especially when talking about his meteoric rise to the heights of haute couture. That softness and sweetness remains, even when, late in the film, he appears much thinner and more brooding, the result of drugs and a gathering darkness.

But a second McQueen, one given to nasty outbursts toward his co-workers and occasional personal vendettas when he felt betrayed, is only spoken of in interviews with his friends, muses, mentors and creative colleagues, and never emerges on camera. If there was a devil hiding inside McQueen – and it is not hard to imagine that there was, given his daring and controversial designs, which infamously evoked violence and rape in early shows – it remains hidden from our view. Oblique discussion of the sexual abuse McQueen suffered as a child at the hands of his brother-in-law shed some light on his demons.

What does come under the spotlight are the clothes.

Just as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” focused on the oxymoronic nature of McQueen’s art – simultaneously punky and polished, nose-thumbing and deeply thoughtful – the film by Ian Bonhtte and Peter Ettedgui lavishes attention where it belongs: on the wearable, at times almost sculptural objects created by McQueen in his short 18-year career, first for his own namesake line and later for the house of Givenchy.

The fashion shows we see are risque, angsty, intense and provocative, even questioning the nature of beauty. Robotic arms shoot spray-paint on the white dress (and body) of a twirling model in one. In another, set on a stage that turned the catwalk into a mock-up of a padded asylum, the show culminates in a finale featuring a heavyset, naked model inspired by photographer Joel-Peter Witkin’s “Sanitarium.”

McQueen, you see, wasn’t interested in pretty things. Or, rather, as “McQueen” makes clear, he wasn’t only interested in pretty things.

This documentary is just the latest in a recent spate of films about fashion-world iconoclasts: “The Gospel According to Andre,” about Andre Leon Talley; “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” about Vivienne Westwood; and “Love, Cecil,” about Cecil Beaton. More than these other films, “McQueen” makes the case that its subject was an artist whose clay was clothing. It also, despite giving short shrift to psychoanalysis, reminds us that everything you might want to know about the artist can be found in the art.

As McQueen himself puts it, directing our attention to where it matters, “If you want to know me, just look at my work.”

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