The Met Ball (2010)

2010 #88a
R.J. Cutler | 27 mins | TV

Depending on your level of generosity, this could be described facetiously as either “The September Issue 2” or “a deleted scene from The September Issue”.

It’s sort of both. Culled from footage shot while Cutler was making The September Issue, The Met Ball clearly had no place in the finished film but does work as a piece in its own right. At almost half-an-hour it would’ve extended the feature considerably, but also detracted from the point — this has nothing to do with the production of the titular issue of Vogue. Instead, it shows Anna Wintour and co preparing for the annual Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is of course an excuse for more of the vapid celebrity and fashion culture that Vogue is all about.

Chloe Sevigny at the 2007 Met BallThe interest of the piece for us normal, sensible folk, then, lies in what it exposes about this world: the ludicrous lengths they go to; the shockingly inflated sense of self importance. As with The September Issue, it presents no narration and a lot of long takes of documentary footage, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions. But there are conclusions to be drawn. Wintour is as much a closed book here as in the main film, but there are moments — glances, affectations, turns of phrase — that reveal a little bit more of the truth behind her icy demeanour.

One thing I can’t help think is that she’s very British — which, in America, has created a reputation for being icy, distant and controlling, but is more just quiet and reserved. At times, you can even see uncertainty and self-doubt, like in the painfully embarrassing sequence where Chloe Sevigny — hardly a huge star in her own right — walks right past Wintour’s attempted “hello” on the red carpet… and is promptly dragged back for an equally awkward second attempt, which ends with Sevigny lingering uncomfortably nearby while Wintour moves on. It’s a little painful to watch, but through the actions of those involved — and the thought-unseen moments Cutler captures — is one of the film’s most revealing sequences.

If you didn’t care for The September Issue then there’s nothing to see here. For those of us who appreciated it as an interesting documentary on an alien, perhaps unknowable world, The Met Ball peels back a little more.

4 out of 5

The September Issue (2009)

2010 #26
R.J. Cutler | 86 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

I don’t really care about fashion, which means I really don’t care about Fashion — i.e. the world inhabited by Vogue and its American edition’s infamous editor, Anna Wintour. But I did watch The Devil Wears Prada and quite enjoyed it, while this documentary comes well-praised. And after all, what’s documentary for if not to educate you on a subject you know nothing about?

The September Issue, as it turns out, is surprisingly enjoyable. Is it illuminating? I’m not sure, though some bits are occasionally fascinating — director R.J. Cutler’s handful of interview snippets with Wintour are well-chosen; brief but potentially revealing, even as she does her best to given nothing away.

There’s no narration — nothing is rammed home. It occasionally feels free-form, a collection of bits and pieces about the making of one issue. But narratives form themselves amongst this, like the relationship between Wintour and Grace Coddington, her chief… I forget the job title, but it’s something magazine-designer-y.

Grace is, perhaps, the real star of the film. While Wintour floats around unknowably (though Cutler and co do their best to get under her skin, and manage to dig some information out in the process), it’s Grace who is frankest with the camera, who reveals her somewhat tragic past, who stands before a garden in Paris and is lost to memory staring at its beauty. She’s a wise centre for the film: Wintour, one suspects, will always be unknowable, a figurehead more than a person; but Grace is relatable, as human as the rest of us.

And actually, Wintour isn’t the most irritating person here; not when you’ve got ludicrous fashion stereotypes like André Leon Talley drifting in and out. This in spite of her opening assertion, apparently designed to drive away all non-Fashion-fans right from the off. No, love, not everyone secretly wishes they were part of your world; not everyone secretly thinks it’s the height of sophistication and glamour and only criticises it because they can’t get in on it.

Even after a whole film that does something to reconfigure her as slightly more human, and to repaint the industry as occasionally relatable, coming back to that introductory drum-beating still grates. But the rest is, somewhat surprisingly, worth it.

4 out of 5

See also the accompanying short, The Met Ball.