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THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY (2016) review

June 6, 2016

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produced by: Fabiola Beracasa, Skot Bright, Dawn Ostroff & Sylvana Ward Durrett
directed by: Anrew Rossi
rated: PG-13 (for brief strong language)
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: April 13, 2016 (Tribeca), June 3-10, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center) and June 15, 2016 (limited) 

 

Director Andrew Rossi’s latest, “The First Monday in May”,  focuses on the preparation and planning that goes into the Met Gala, the annual event that takes place on the titular date at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I liken my interest in fashion to my interest in sports. I’d rather attend a game or actually play in a game than watch a game at home or in a bar. Not to mention, I have no idea or desire to know who’s playing for what team and how long their contract is for, etc.  The same goes for fashion – I could care less who’s wearing whom on what occasion, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate fashion designers. I’m not alone, considering the abundance of recent documentaries such as “Valentino,” “The September Issue,” and “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.” I suppose viewers with a greater knowledge of the industry will get more out of the movie, but I appreciated the discussion of how and why art, fashion, commerce and celebrity collide. 

The movie focuses primarily on the Chinese-inspired theme of the 2015 Met Gala, which was called China: Through the Looking Glass, focusing on the impact of Chinese design on Western fashion over the centuries. It was originally scheduled to run from May 7th through August 16th, but was extended through September 7th, due to its popularity. Overseen by British curator, Andrew Bolton, the exhibit featured 150 garments from 40 designers and drew a record attendance. Bolton was assisted by British fashion figure, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of British Vogue and artistic director for Condé Nast, Vogue’s publisher (believed to be the inspiration for “The Devil Wears Prada” and subject of R. J. Cutler’s documentary “The September Issue”)  and the movie predominately covers the 2014 progress of the MET’s Costume Institute’s (the department that become responsible for the care and display of top fashion collections from the world’s greatest designers – a beloved 2011 exhibition featuring the work of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen made the idea of fashion displays a top priority) multi-million dollar fundraising event.

 

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Obviously, the two were not alone in this process. There were many creatives and suits involved in conceptualizing and designing the exhibit. Bolton was so inspired by the use of fashion in Wong Kar-wai‘s 2000 film “In the Mood for Love” that he asked the Chinese director to get involved in planning details. We also see Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann involved in some unidentifiable manner as well. The goal is to top recapture or top the immense success of McQueen’s triumphant 2011 “Savage Beauty,” an exhibit largely credited as the origin of the “fashion as art” discussion. The opportunity to return the Gala to such success holds great meaning for Bolton as he sees it as a way to reconnect fashion to the masses with a unique take on Chinese history and craftsmanship.

Rossi, who directed “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” knows how to document an environment rife with pressured deadlines and unfortunate delays. Most interesting is how he sees Bolton and Wintour as a dynamic and forceful duo, with the bespectacled Bolton a calm and sincere presence while the prickly Wintour, with her signature pageboy bob and sunglasses, has a reputable cold demeanor. The two can be fun to watch, but Wintour’s intimidating presence often dominates, potentially becoming quite off-putting to viewers (hint: me) who only have a vague interest in the industry.

That being said, what goes into the production and culmination of such a daunting event/exhibit is something I haven’t really ever considered. It’s akin to planning a lavish celebrity wedding – and that’s not too far off when we see Wintour and her underlings scouring over a seating arrangement for the big night, deciding on where the Clooneys should sit, who should sit at a table with Sarah Jessica Parker or whether or not it’s okay of Chloe Sevigny sits at a table situated on the outskirts of the layout. See? Just like a wedding. There’s a moment where we witness a private career put-down, when actor Josh Hartnett’s name came up and someone asked, “What has he done lately?” which backs up the old saying, “You’re only as good as your last (album, play or movie)”.

 

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For me, that war room aspect of planning was a real turnoff from the main purpose of the exhibit – or, the art side of fashion. But Bolton, Wintour and their cohorts realize though that in a red carpet/paparazzi world that worships celebrity, there’s a need to involve “names” and have the media cover such an event – in order to promote what they’re creating and raise money for their charity. It’s all understandable but it’s also the least appealing aspect of the both the actual event and “The First Monday in May”.

Bolton’s backstory and quest to perfection is much more interesting than any time Wintour is present, but I found myself wishing the film would’ve spent more time on the debate about cultural sensitivities and Chinese pressure to “modernize” the show. The museum team is concerned that the show will be reminiscent of an amusement park, the Chinese officials they speak with are more concerned of discriminatory representation. Rossi incorporates the kind of talking heads that we expect to appear, fashion luminaries such as John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gaultier, as they pontificate the industry and the value in the Met Gala event.

 

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Of course, such a film is going to end with coverage of the actual event.  As expected, it feels like any other red carpet event with the likes of Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Kate Hudson wearing Chinese-themed gowns with their full glamour on display. When Rossi and his co-cinematographer Bryan Sarkinen take their cameras into the exhibit, walking alongside the elite guests, it’s a nice payoff to all the buildup. Indeed, the many galleries are painstakingly created and are quite beautiful and creative. It’s kind of cool to see Hudson (locking arms with giddy Gaultier) gobsmacked over the designs and exhibits, reminding us that they’re just like us.

There’s a desperate and jarring attempt to remain relevant, however, when special guest Rihanna (and her immense entourage) shows up – after Wintour calls her to cajole her price down – congratulating everyone involved, praising the uniting of two cultures and then cutting into a performance of “Bitch Better Have My Money” on stage. How ironic. Some of the reactions in the audience are priceless, while others are oblivious.

As previously mentioned,  “The First Monday in May” is for a specific audience.  Those uninterested in the fashion world will find themselves wandering or wondering why they’re watching. Admittedly, so many of the figures we follow in this doc are so self-absorbed it’s hard to care, but Rossi’s interest alone in the event make it somewhat worth it.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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