The intersection between art and commerce is addressed both directly and indirectly in Andrew Rossi’s documentary chronicling the creation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 landmark China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition and the gala marking its opening. The exhibition imaginatively addressed the question of whether fashion can be considered art. The fund-raising gala accompanying it was such a garish celebration of the one percent that it could serve as a Bernie Sanders campaign ad. Receiving its world premiere as the opening-night attraction of the Tribeca Film Festival, The First Monday in May should prove catnip to fashionistas upon its theatrical release.
“It’s a kind of theater,” comments Anna Wintour about the gala’s red-carpet ritual that provides the documentary with its opening montage. The Vogue editor and longtime chair of the Met Gala is prominently featured in the film, often shown striding down hallways with a giant coffee cup clutched in her hand and wearing her signature oversized sunglasses even indoors.
Catnip for fashionistas.
The museum’s Costume Institute has assumed an increasingly important role in recent years, thanks to such blockbuster exhibitions as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which broke attendance records in 2011. Curator Andrew Bolton freely admits onscreen that he’s attempting to top that show, controversially put on not long after the fashion designer’s suicide, and we eventually learn that he succeeded handily. The exhibition, which explored the influence of Chinese culture and design on Western fashion, shattered the previous record, attracting over 815,000 visitors.
Much as he did with Page One, his doc about the inner workings of The New York Times, the filmmaker effectively goes behind the scenes, capturing the complicated logistics that go into the creation of the exhibition and its accompanying gala. The former element provides the film’s emotionally richest moments, such as when Bolton makes a pilgrimage to the sealed vaults of the Yves Saint Laurent archives and gushes over the classic pieces, and when he and the exhibit’s artistic director, filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, debate such aspects as how much it should reflect the influence of Chairman Mao — they have to be careful not to offend the Chinese government — and how densely packed with objects it should be.
“Try not to make the show too busy,” the filmmaker wisely advises his colleague. “Seeing too much is seeing nothing.”
Less edifying, if far more entertainingly dishy, is the depiction of the massive preparations by Wintour and her minions for the gala, which former Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley gushingly describes as “the Super Bowl of fashion events.” They obsessively ruminate over the seating chart, putting more effort into the careful placement of celebs than the Allied Forces did planning the D-Day invasion. And it’s often not pretty.
“Josh Hartnett?” one staffer questions. “What has he done lately? Nothing.” Oh, snap!
When a museum official objects to Wintour’s proposal to cordon off an area of the building for rehearsals, essentially denying visitors access to an entire wing for days, the editor haughtily responds, “They’ll come back next week.”
Then there’s the footage of the gala itself, featuring a plethora of air-kissing celebrities decked out in their garish best, including Rihanna, seen on the red carpet wearing a gown whose train practically extends to the East River. Among those also on resplendent display are Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lawrence, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian and George and Amal Clooney, the latter provoking a tirade from Talley, who’s covering it.
“The Clooneys did not stop! The Clooneys did not stop!” he desperately shouts into his headpiece.
Leave it to Larry David to sum it up the best.
“What the f— is this?” he’s heard muttering as he incredulously surveys the pandemonium surrounding him.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Production companies: Magnolia Pictures, Relativity Studios, Planned Projects in association with Conde Nast Entertainment, Mediaweaver Entertainment and Sarah Arison Productions
Director: Andrew Rossi
Producers: Fabiola Beracasa Beckman, Sylvana Ward Durrett, Dawn Ostroff, Matthew Weaver, Skot Bright
Executive producers: Sarah Arison, Nancy Chilton, Jason Beckman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Josh Braun, Tucker Tooley
Directors of photography: Andrew Rossi, Bryan Sarkinen
Editors: Chad Beck, Andrew Coffman, Andrew Rossi
Composers: Ian Hultquist, Sofia Hultquist
Rated PG-13, 91 minutes