‘High & Low: John Galliano’ Review: Kevin Macdonald’s Fashion Doc Enraptures on the Runway but Trips Up in Reputation Rehab

Kevin Macdonald’s moving 2018 bio-doc, Whitney, did a great job of fortifying Whitney Houston’s legacy while wiping away the smear of the predatory celebrity culture that made a mockery of one of contemporary pop’s most exceptional talents during the worst and most public period of her drug addiction. Another price-of-fame subject, disgraced British fashion designer John Galliano, is a trickier prospect that does the director no favors.

If you come to this film looking for a brisk overview of his achievements in couture, you might find High & Low more than serviceable. Footage of shows, especially from Galliano’s big-budget tenure as creative director at Dior make for fabulous wardrobe porn, highlighting the haute theatricality and ravishing romance that turned him into a fashion rock star. But if you’re expecting the definitive closing leg of the redemption tour, it’s unlikely you’ll find this a persuasive argument for separating the art from the a-hole.

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That’s a problem when the film is framed by the anti-Semitic and racist tirade (actually one of three reported incidents) that got Galliano into legal trouble in France and derailed his career for a period; and by vociferous assertions from pretty much everyone that his two years in exile constitute atonement. The word gets batted around a lot, but there’s little in Galliano’s unsympathetic demeanor in the interviews shot for High & Low to suggest much more than lip service.

Macdonald is generally not an imprecise nonfiction filmmaker, but the question arises while watching this doc of whether he’s in agreement with Vogue fixtures like Anna Wintour, Jonathan Newhouse and the late André Leon Talley, lobbying for Galliano to be forgiven — Condé Nast Entertainment is an associate producer, in case the benediction needed to be any clearer — or whether he’s giving the abrasively unpleasant Galliano enough rope to hang himself. Which for this critic, he does.

Talking about atonement doesn’t mean much when you show so little humility or self-reproach. Galliano puts far greater emphasis on the shame he’s had to live with and the strain of pumping out 30-plus collections a year that fueled his drug and alcohol addiction, seeming to suggest that spewing hate screeds is no surprise given his condition at the time. Sure.

The burnout story of impossible artistic demands — underscored throughout with clips from The Red Shoes — is practically a subgenre within the broader field of fashion docs. Recent films on Halston and Alexander McQueen tell similar stories, resulting in substance abuse, depression and, along with other factors, suicide in the tragic latter case. But not a drunken torrent of pro-Hitler rhetoric. (The 2018 doc, simply titled McQueen, is outstanding.)

Galliano’s anti-Asian slurs got less press, though they come up in an interview with Philippe Virgitti, the one person represented here who was on the receiving end of the designer’s abuse at Café La Perle in Paris. Virgitti reveals the enduring sting of his exposure in the media and the French legal system resulting from the incident. And while Galliano maintains that he apologized in court, Virgitti insists that he did not.

So is Galliano genuinely sorry for his acknowledged ugly behavior or does he just regret it, which is different? That’s a question Macdonald’s doc asks implicitly, leaving the answer open to interpretation. To the filmmaker’s credit, High & Low never purports to be an endorsement of Galliano, but instead a contextualization of the key incident and the fashion world’s muddled response to it.

There’s endless forgiveness advocacy from friends and professional associates like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, and what seems like self-serving championing from fashion arbiters like Wintour et al. about how the field needs Galliano’s genius, his gift for drama. Should we overlook toxic bigotry so celebrities can have something cool to wear to the Met Gala?

One of the more thoughtful commentators here is Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor and writer Robin Givhan, who reasons that it’s conceivable to believe in the possibility of a second chance and that Galliano’s tirades were unforgivable. Although when considering certain factors in his redemption, Givhan, who is Black, drops the loaded distinction: “He’s a white man.”

Condé Nast chairman and Vogue publisher Newhouse was one of the key power players involved in rebooting Galliano’s career, going into outreach mode with Jewish leaders until he found a rabbi willing to craft a special course in Holocaust education for the designer, who purportedly had very little knowledge of that dark chapter in history. Seriously? He knew enough to tell (non-Jewish) folks having a quiet drink in the Marais: “Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed.”

Echoing the uneducated theory is commentary around some of Galliano’s spectacular Dior shows, with garments inspired by travels to Yemen, China, Egypt and other destinations. While the thought police might now call some of this cultural appropriation, the argument is made that Galliano is an artistic magpie who only ever had a surface understanding of the cultures he sampled.

Witness the astonishing gaffe that truncated his first comeback in 2013, with an Oscar de la Renta residency brokered by Wintour. A photo of Galliano heading to a show for the fashion house revealed him dressed in faux-Hasidic garb, not an ideal look for someone tainted by anti-Semitism.

The outrage sparked by his spring/summer 2000 shabby-chic collection for Dior, Les Clochards, perceived as a slap in the face to the Parisian homeless population, is another case in point. As with most of Galliano’s creations, the clothes themselves were radically original, even if the concept would become a joke a year later with the satirical “Derelicte” collection in Zoolander.

At times, there almost seems a tacit suggestion of Twinkie defense: “John’s not very bright, so let’s cut him some slack because he’s a huge talent.”

One of the more substantive angles — by far the most affecting part of the doc — is the emotional distress caused by the death in 2007 from a drug overdose of Steven Robinson, Galliano’s close friend and longtime right-hand man at Dior. Robinson’s story is the saddening one of an artist who might have had the talent to be a design star but not the public-facing self-confidence.

Galliano himself doesn’t play down the reasons he got into hot water but he leans on the blackout excuse to claim no memory of the incidents. What’s more disconcerting is that when Macdonald — who by no means confines himself to softball questions — asks the designer to speculate on the root of his anti-Semitic vitriol, he kind of shrugs. Others, including Jewish intellectuals, point to his Andalusian Catholic family origins as a background in which Jews were widely maligned as “Christ killers.” His working-class South London upbringing also comes up.

Along with The Red Shoes, the other significant motif that recurs throughout is Napoleon, notably in Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film, one of the inspirations for Les Incroyables, Galliano’s 1984 French Revolution-themed graduation collection at Central Saint Martins, which instantly put him on the London fashion map. As iconic shorthand for unchecked ego, Napoleon is an effective symbol. Galliano even sported a Bonaparte bicorne on numerous occasions, so it’s not an allusion from which he shied away. Egomania and atonement are not the most compatible bedfellows, it turns out.

The movie concludes with Galliano’s 2022 show for Maison Margiela, the avenue for his second comeback, where he has served as creative director since 2014, spending less time in the public eye. Titled Cinema Inferno, the show is staged beneath movie screens running a torrid melodrama with autobiographical elements — and some truly terrible dialogue and acting. At the end of it, Galliano paces in agitation and then flees up a flight of stairs to an empty studio, spent and exhausted, which we know from earlier in the doc is his usual state after the launch of a collection, both before and since he got clean.

There’s no doubt that being an artist in a highly competitive commercial luxury sector takes a lot out of a person. But that factor also contributes to the queasy feeling in High & Low that the subject is less defined by humbled remorse than self-pitying martyrdom. And that makes this provocative but uneasy film leave a sour taste in the mouth.

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