The First Monday in May
My first outing to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, although not the first I’ve reviewed, was a jaunt along to catch The First Monday in May. This promising piece is brought to us by documentary film-maker Andrew Rossi (Ivory Tower, Page One: the New York Times). I will admit to going into this as a fairly blank slate, having not seen any of Rossi’s work before, and not even viewing the trailer beforehand. In fact my only preparation was a paragraph in the EIFF brochure, and so I was genuinely intrigued as to what I had in store.
Rossi sets out to document three intertwining threads as they come together for the culmination of the film. Firstly we follow Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as he tries to bring together his new exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass” in time for the Met Gala Charity Ball. Not only has he to deal with the largest exhibition in his department’s history, he also has to deal with the millstone round his neck of his first, and most successful, installation, the almost infamous Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which everything he does is measured against. Bolton is a likable fellow, and Rossi does enough to let us root for him as something of the underdog of this tale.
We also follow Anna Wintour, the notorious editor of Vogue, and the inspiration for Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada, as she plans and controls all aspects of the upcoming Met Gala. As the documentary continues, although there is an occasional view of her softer side, in particular as she is dealing with Bolton or her daughter, we see what a formidable force of nature she is, and how clear minded she is in getting things exactly as she wants them.
The last string to this instrument, that Rossi plays so well, is the Gala and Exhibition themselves, providing a stunning third act to the documentary. Even though the first two thirds of the film are interwoven, especially as Bolton and Wintour work together to provide a symbiotic experience for their respective areas of responsibility, this third act shows us some of the best known people in modern culture as consumers of art and entertainment. Seeing the likes of Kate Hudson and Jean-Paul Gaultier wandering round the exhibition with the same delight and wonder as any other member of the public is a real treat, as the veneer of PR falls away. We are also treated to some behind the scenes reinforcement of quietly held opinions of these folks that the media places on pedestals. One example of this is Justin Beiber acting like the spoiled entitled idiot he is, as he tries, and fails to sing without a sound-tech and a mixing board to back him up.
The fascinating things about this documentary, as with many others, are the unguarded moments. There is a fascinating sequence where Bolton and Wintour head to China to publicise the exhibition, and although they have done what they can to make sure that folks understand that this is a retrospective, they seem genuinely baffled as to why reporters are very touchy with regards there being nothing that much about modern China involved in the show. Wintour’s candid dismissive comments to Bolton when they are talking amongst themselves are very telling of some of the more uncomfortable attitudes amongst the fashionistas of the world. This is even more evident in a further scene where Bolton is trying to explain a choice he’s made to Kar-Wai Wong (Fallen Angels, The Grandmaster), who has been brought in as artistic director for the exhibition. The lack of cultural understanding is almost wince-inducing, and the look on Wong’s face as Bolton tries to not back down, has stayed with me long after my viewing of the film.
The big question you may have with regards this documentary work is if it will be of any interest or significance to you as the viewer. Obviously I can only offer my perspective on the work, but I would say that it’s fascinating on so many levels. The subject matter itself isn’t something that I hold any strong interest in, but I was riveted throughout. Rossi’s visuals in the final third as he swoops over the red carpet, and through the exhibition are hauntingly beautiful, and the delight of all involved as the Gala progresses is a joy to behold. However, even the small human moments, never as grand as those sweeping shots, are compelling to the last. If this isn’t the sort of thing you’re usually interested in, take a chance on it. It feels intimate and grand all at once, and you’ll have a real sense of satisfaction from taking your time to enjoy the spectacle.