Directed by: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui
Classification: N/A: 111 minutes
The moment when your heart breaks will probably come just past McQueen’s halfway point, at a runway finale when two remote-controlled robots splatter paint on the dress worn by Canadian model Shalom Harlow.
It’s not because, by then, the naughty, lusty laughs that punctuate many of designer Lee Alexander McQueen’s early interviews have faded, or that the carefree lad cartwheeling in the countryside is all but gone. Instead, it feels distinctly like the last elated, hopeful moment of the film, and every subsequent breathtaking outfit intermingling delicacy and violence, nature, technology and decay is dénouement – a terrible beauty.
They all inexorably lead to when fashion designer McQueen took his own life. And that hindsight knowledge, and the sensitive portrayal of the visionary at work and play, makes it inescapable to see how issues (including depression and addiction) found their way into the work that came next.
If McQueen’s silhouettes and dark themes are read as autobiographical, they become ever more Grimm fairy tales. He included women wrapped in clingfilm or wearing tailored suits still bearing the tread imprints of first being run over by tires (one critic calls the bruised and tattered garments “confessional,” another “like they’re from a crime scene”). Occasionally using his clan tartan as canvas, provocative collections such as the Widows of Culloden and Highland Rape mine historical ancestral trauma intermingled with the more recent past, exploring the domestic violence and sexual abuse in McQueen’s own childhood. As he metamorphoses from chubby lad to sinewy success, complete with new teeth, liposuction and an expensive wardrobe, the emotional effect is cumulative and at times, visceral.
When people watch old footage or talk of McQueen’s highly theatrical runway presentations now, the consensus is: You had to be there. By using his collections as the backbone of the dramatic structure and providing texture with process footage and interviews from the period, McQueen is a haunting biography that goes beyond even that live runway experience to conjure the visionary himself, in as much as he may ever be known – and in a way even his savagely beautiful clothes themselves cannot.