THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, Directed by R. J. Cutler, rated PG-13, 88 minutes.
If you have the means, you certainly can buy couture, but the question is whether you can pull off couture. You can step into Prada or Dior, Valentino or Chanel, but there’s a chance that some might prefer that you didn’t, thank you very much, because you might destroy the effect. Or perhaps you’d enhance it. Who knows? Those who care to take the risk and be judged for it are likely those who can pull it off.
Or not. It’s the “not” that creates so many knots of tension.
That’s the thing about fashion — or, at the least, the perception of fashion, especially at the level explored in R.J. Cutler’s biting documentary, “The September Issue,” which focuses on the creation of that hefty, iconic issue of American Vogue and all that goes into its production.
And what a production.
The movie opens with a tight shot of the magazine’s infamous editor, Anna Wintour, who was famously lampooned by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” With her clipped bob framing a pinched face that reflects intelligence, focus and zero effort to shield her willingness to defend the world she not only loves but rules, she levels her gaze at her interviewer and cuts to the core:
“What I often see is that people are frightened of fashion because it scares them. Or they feel insecure, and so they put it down. On the whole, people who say demeaning things about our world … feel excluded or not part of the cool group. So, as a result, they just mock it. There is something about fashion that can make people very nervous.”
There’s everything about Wintour that makes the world in which she moves nervous, and this is one of the reasons “The September Issue” is such good viewing. Throughout, there’s perhaps one fleeting moment in which Wintour looks genuinely happy, and that’s at an event in which the young designer she coddled, Thakoon, has his moment. Otherwise, she looks either bored, bothered or aggravated. She’s cold — and then colder. With the exception of her daughter, whom she adores, few things please her. As for those working for her? Well, that’s also what makes the movie so much fun to watch.
Behind the scenes at Vogue, it’s a circus of controlled tempers, crushed egos, fearsome glances, stifled tears, mounting frustrations, sudden revelations that go down like this: “The jacket is the new coat!” — and all because of the power of one woman. Yet you don’t come away from the movie disliking Wintour. She has been put in this position to make difficult decisions that have everything to do with money and nothing to do with making people feel good about their professional lives. If she were a man, would her attitude be an issue? Would there even be a movie?
She works hard, she’s all business, and you have to hand it to her — she’s also savvy enough to know show business. In this movie, she eschews the opportunity to soften her damning image and instead gives viewers what they expect from her — ruthlessness. Wintour isn’t afraid to be feared. In fact, she owns that fear. There’s a kind of admiration in her unwillingness to be anything other than who she is.
The woman who doesn’t fear her is Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington, a former model with a wild mane of frizzy red hair who has worked for Vogue for so long few things intimidate her. Some of the movie’s best scenes are when she spars with Wintour. Few have the guts to take on Anna, but Coddington does, and her willingness to do so deepens the movie for a specific reason — Wintour may not always agree with Coddington, but her respect for the woman is real. She wouldn’t allow just anyone talk to her the way Grace does, but because she does, it humanizes her.
Humanizing Anna Wintour isn’t easy to do. Take, for instance, how one interviewer at Paris’ Fashion Week is treated when he asks her whether there is a way to wear fur that season. Wintour’s reply? In spite of the cruelty inherent in the fur industry and all of the controversy surrounding it, the woman who brought fur back to the forefront of fashion when she dared to put it on her magazine cover shrugs off the question with a laugh. “There’s always a way to wear fur,” she says. “Personally, I have it on my back.”
Since Coddington is seated beside her, the way she slyly leans back to catch a glance at Wintour’s back is priceless. There’s fur there, all right, and on that back, it’s raised.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.