Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Two Movies: Haute Couture

We watched Valentino: The Last Emperor last night--a movie about the Italian fashion designer who just recently retired, after watching his business gradually consumed by corporate interests. It made for an interesting comparison with a movie we watched last week, The September Issue, about the preparation and publication of a season-opening issue of Vogue magazine. I woke up puzzling over the fact that I really quite liked one, and disliked the other enormously. I'm hoping that it's not just a matter of gender bias on my part...

Both movies are essentially about massive egos. They belong, respectively, to Valentino, the designer, and Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor-in-chief. Both, clearly, are set in the niche world of high fashion--an industry that caters primarily to the egos of the very wealthy and the very famous. It's all about appearances. Male and female beauty--or what the fashion industry promotes as male and female beauty--are idolized. The clothes that drape their perfect figures are for the most part over-the-top, sometimes frankly ridiculous to those of us who shop at the nearest department store. The pages of the glossy magazines in which they are marketed offer only the superficial thrill of glamor. It's not a world that I admire, let alone aspire to be a part of.

So why did I like one of these movies and despise the other? I'm sure it has to do with the two main characters involved, and with my judgment--based, of course, only on the way in which the movies presented them--that one was driven largely by a genuine love of beauty, the other by ambition and marketing. Both of them are "driven." Their work is their life; all other concerns and considerations fade into the background. Their relationships with those who love them come in a clear second. Each of them can be dismissive, even cruel to those who work for them--I almost wrote "slave" for them, because that's how it seems. The exclusivity of their ambition is at once commendable and repellent. Without it, they would not have been able to achieve what they have created in their lives, but it comes at a certain cost to their likability as
human beings.

Given all this, I found myself liking Valentino a lot more than I liked Anna Wintour. Am I falling victim to male stereotyping when I respond negatively to her aggressive, demanding nature, a kind of cold and calculating approach to work and other people, a dispassionate obsession with the success of her work? I found no warmth of common humanity in her, only professional ambition. In Valentino, ambition seemed motivated by a passion to create something beautiful, and to honor beauty in the world, using the talent he was given. He seemed driven as much by emotion as by calculation, as much by aesthetics as by money. He also seemed capable of laughing a little at his own excesses, of glimpsing himself, at odd moments, as faintly anachronistic, even a little bit absurd.

Seen, too, at the end of a remarkable career, there was a certain pathos to his character. Amazingly fit and nimble at the age of seventy-five, he was shown as a man in inner conflict, a man caught between his reluctance to grow old and the inevitable fact of aging; and between the old world of courtesy and professional integrity in which he came of age and a new world where what counts is no longer the quality of design or the quality of life, but the corporate bottom line. For Wintour, this interesting and difficult conflict did not exist. She is planted firmly in the new world.

I enjoyed, too, the detail in "Valentino"--the scenes where the seamstresses were shown at work with their needles, where the nitty-gritty of the design world was on view. And I enjoyed, just a little, being wowed by the life-style of this man who has acquired incredible wealth and fame, and by the way he accepts it all, almost modestly, as his due. The climactic scene of his anniversary party, complete with fireworks, gourmet dinners, champagne, and airborne dancers at the Colosseum in Rome was so over-the-top excessive as to be kind of charming, in its own peculiarly outrageous way...

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