High & Low – John Galliano is a riveting portrait of the deeply complex king of haute couture

High & Low – John Galliano is a riveting portrait of the deeply complex king of haute couture

As a young person, John Galliano went to see Abel Gance’s epic silent masterpiece Napoleon. Director Kevin Macdonald, in his documentary High & Low – John Galliano on the life of the controversial fashion designer, intercuts scenes from Napoleon to emphasize the trajectory of the designer’s life. We see Napoleon as a child, his rise to power and his slow deterioration. Beyond the French Revolution’s obvious influence on his work, particularly early in his career, we see a man’s outsized ambition, rebellious spirit and eventual fall. Gance’s film, hand-tinted with the colours of the French flag, brings an ostentatious and stylized energy that acts as a kind of subconscious impetus to the movie.

In a biopic-style documentary, Macdonald structures the rest of the film around archival footage and talking heads — including Galliano himself. Despite the hand of the subject involved, the movie doesn’t necessarily soften its subject. It paints Galliano as a complex and occasionally troubled man whose drinking and ego are as grand as his talent. 

As a showcase of his different periods and influence, the film thrives. The unravelling beauty of each different show is highlighted and captured in all its majesty. The documentary pays homage to his influences and collaborators in due form, and the film’s montage style emphasizes how Galliano can bring a cinematic and theatrical edge to both his shows and fashions. As Kate Moss says in an interview, “It was a fantasy — that’s what fashion should be.” While critics would also throw that out as an insult over the course of his career, the theatrical element of his work is particularly suited to the cinematic experience. Seeing his clothing in movement, one has a sense of entering into his imagination. 

As the film continues, hitting different controversial milestones, culminating in his career-destroying antisemitic outburst in 2011, which led to his firing and legal action against him, the film pivots to the question of redemption. Galliano is a complex man who was struggling with addiction, overcome with grief and without a strong support system. Why did he become an industry scapegoat? What does he have to do to return?

John Galliano circa 2022, in High & Low – John Galliano

The film doesn’t necessarily make a specifically strong case as to Galliano returning to the fold but that’s maybe beside the point. Around the edges of the frame, it showcases the fashion world as embattled and hierarchical. One senses that Galliano’s initial success was always conditional, that he was never quite accepted into this world. His downfall is not just the story of personal failure, but a universe of enablers, and a world that picks and chooses to protect literal predators and the legacies of the dead above all others. Galliano’s enormous ambition and risk-taking as a designer proved to be a liability as much as it was an asset.

It sounds like cliché, because it is, but it’s also clear that Galliano remains “addicted” to fame and influence. His fall from grace and frustration with his inability to regain his former power has less to do with his desire to create new fashion works, and more his frustration with not being on the top anymore. The documentary, for better and for worse, fails to redeem his image. It can’t hide his blind ambition and becomes little more than a larger-than-life YouTube apology video. The way it gives voice to people impacted by his mistakes is admirable, though messy, as it serves a flawed and incomplete redemption arc. Yet, the film’s failure to achieve its apparent goal is also why it’s so interesting. It only ends up building into Galliano’s mythos, strengthening his Napoleonic complex, rather than the “new” Galliano shaped by the program and sobriety.

High & Low – John Galliano is a contentious and compelling documentary. It excels thanks to the wealth of its archival footage and an incredible cast of talking heads, including Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz, and more. It’s a movie that paints the portrait of an embattled soul and a great artist. ■

High & Low – John Galliano (directed by Kevin Macdonald)

High & Low – John Galliano is currently streaming on MUBI.

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