Click here to listen to the interview with director R.J. Cutler (15:42).
At the very start of THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, Anna Wintour, Editor-in Chief of Vogue, and arbiter of what is and what is not fashion in an industry worth serious millions of dollars annually, opines that people who sneer at fashion are actually afraid of it. Beneath her immaculately sculpted and highlighted bob, perfectly applied make-up, her expression is severe. She is not joking. And she may be onto something, though not quite in the way she intended. As this documentary by R. J. Cutler follows the construction of Vogueís titular issue, the one with the most ad space, the one that defines what fashion will be for the following year, there is both fear and audacity. The fear is palpable beneath the careful insouciance of the designers of haute couture as they preview their wares for Wintour, the deferential silence Wintour doesnít have to demand of underlings who leap out of her way in response to a barely audible ďexcuse me,Ē and the way advertisers fawn over Wintour at elegant breakfast meetings in
Wintour, a small figure in oversized sunglasses and outfits that are as self-consciously for show as is her cold impersonal interaction with others, spares no one the benefit of her opinion about what works and what doesnít. Coddington is just as prickly, but this former fashion model, who billows through the film in oversized black dresses, no make-up, sensible shoes, and a cloud of stridently red hair, is as kinetic as Wintour is still. If Wintour has the vision, it is Coddington who brings it to life with photo shoots that transcend the mere selling of garments to become art in its own right. A collection of dresses becomes a nostalgic vision of a 1920s that never was, but that should have been. As Wintour slowly winnows down the number of photos that Coddington has created from the final issue, the muttering and actual defiance it generates becomes the defining moments of the relationship between these two women. There is the unspoken understanding that each requires the other, making Coddington the only person within Wintourís professional sphere with the privilege of defiance, but, tellingly, itís also a privilege that she doesnít exploit. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that not only doesnít she need to, but why that is. The relationship is endlessly fascinating, mutually respectful, if not ever quite friendly.
Those around Wintour who talk about her, apologists for the most part who gloss over her rudeness as a necessary evil even if it werenít a part of her character, all seem to fall into the expected fashion world stereotypes, but this doesnít stop them from being highly entertaining. The newbie fashion designer being mentored by Wintour as part of a program to keep fashion designers coming and the ad revenues pouring into her magazine, is fresh-faced, just a little dazzled, and bubbly with unbridled giddiness. The Andre Leon Talley, Vogueís Editor-at-Large, talks about being forced to take up exercise by his boss as he waits to begin a tennis match decked out in a suitably expensive designer watch, and pricey designer polo shirt.
Wintour herself is startlingly candid. When she discusses her father, it is in a manner that appears straighforward, but between the lines, there is the little girl desperate for his approval. When discussing her siblings, who do work with more with more of a social conscience, she is dismissive of their looking down on her work, but it fails to ring true. Even Wintourís daughter, the obvious light of her life, disses momís line of work after being asked her opinion of which digitally enhanced cover photo she prefers. The coldness for which Wintour is so famous takes on a different cast. She is selling dreams, and she is very good at it, but she doesnít seem to be enjoying it, or being the most powerful person in the industry fueling those dreams that so many people seem to need for whatever reason.
My favorite image in THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE is during a photo shoot at Versailles. A model in kabuki-like make-up, a wig that is a wonder of geometry, and a dress worth more than some peopleís cars, carefully leans over to take a bite of a cherry tart. Itís not part of the shoot, itís a treat Coddington has purchased for the model. Aside from discovering that waif-thin models actually do eat solid food, it is the perfect image of the fear and audacity at play. One wrong move, and a day, a shoot, and an issue can go wrong. If it all comes together, itís a masterpiece. It is in these unguarded moments, that THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE enjoys its own audacity, for getting to truths that the subjects may or may not have wanted to reveal, in ways that are clear-eyed without ever quite losing a refreshing empathy, even for the devil.