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High & Low: John Galliano Review – Back in Fashion?

Who deserves a comeback?

3 mins read

High & Low: John Galliano
(USA/UK/France, 116 min.)
Dir. Kevin Macdonald


High & Low: John Galliano is a stylish documentary by Kevin Macdonald, which contrasts the brilliance of fashion designer Galliano’s clothes with the revulsion people felt when he unleashed a stream of anti-Semitic rhetoric in a Parisian café in 2011. What caused the eminent designer to go berserk, yelling racist insults at innocent folks sitting in a posh café? Macdonald’s film, which has been made with the cooperation of Galliano and Vogue publishers Conde Nast, offers his excuse while telling us the colourful story of his life.

An outlandish British New Romantic stylist, Galliano emerged fully formed with a graduation show from London’s St. Martin’s school of art that stunned the fashion world. Based on Galliano’s fevered response to Abel Gance’s imagistic silent-era epic Napoleon, the show featured a crazy amalgam of 19th century costumes, vintage mid-20th century clothing and modern fabrics cut up into a montage of new fashion designs. Macdonald sees Gance’s Napoleon as a metaphor for the designer’s rise to power over the next decade. Using images from Gance’s film, revealing interviews with Galliano and footage from supporters like super model Kate Moss and the late Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley, we see him rise to the top, becoming Dior’s designer from 1997 to 2011.

Macdonald is a virtuoso documentary director so it’s no surprise that he beautifully evokes Galliano’s extraordinary runway shows, which told crazy stories like the sexy “Empress Josephine meets Lolita,” or “Tramps,” a strange homage to homeless Parisians that made many people angry even twenty years ago. The doc makes it clear that Galliano was working too hard and drinking way too much especially after his best friend and assistant Steven Robinson died in 2007.

And there we have it: Galliano’s excuse. He’d become an alcoholic and no longer knew what he was doing or saying. Apparently, Galliano didn’t realize that his boss at Dior, Sidney Toledano, was a Jew and that the face of Dior’s fragrance was the Israeli-born Natalie Portman. Or maybe he did. In any case, he’s spent time with a British rabbi, learned about Jewish history and has tried to make amends. Galliano has stopped drinking and is now the designer for Maison Margiela. It turns out, as the Washington Post’s fashion editor Robin Givhan puts it, you can have a second act if you’re a white male.

Kevin Macdonald has made a film that looks like an apology but is too smart to be one. I recommend seeing High & Low: John Galliano.

High and Low: John Galliano opens in theatres including Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on March 15 and is coming soon to MUBI.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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