The September Issue (2009) dir. R.J. Cutler
By Reece Crothers
The September Issue is a satisfying bit of fluff, a light, digestible entertainment. It is not the behind the scenes expose one hopes for considering the poster's promises that this movie "does for fashion what The War Room did for politics". There is nothing here we don't already know from The Devil Wears Prada. We do not get to peer behind the mask of Anna Wintour, the notoriously icy matriarch of the Vogue magazine empire, and there is less insight into her person here than in Meryl Streep's portrayal of her in the Prada film. Neither are we privy to the Devil-ish side to Wintour, who is always composed, detached, almost bored. Her face rarely forms into anything you might call an expression. On the rare occasions when she does smile, it is as if the muscles of her mouth have lead a revolt against the rest of her face. The one bit of revealing portraiture comes from Anna's admission that her family finds her work "amusing" which is to say, not very important, a point driven home later in the film by Wintour's Ivy-league-bound daughter who says matter-of-factly that she doesn't take her Mother's job very seriously, has no interest in following her footsteps at the magazine, and instead wants to be a lawyer like her dad. If we look closely we see a flash of the injured Wintour before she shrinks back into her fur-coat cocoon.
I wish the filmmaker took Wintour a little more seriously, too. The film is all too comfortable playing it cute with a pop music soundtrack that makes it feel like we're just watching a really long episode of Fashion Television. Like the magazine itself, it's glossy, vibrant, beautiful to look at, but not very profound. When we want to take it seriously as art we instead are treated to bitchy, superficial moments like the editors hovering over proofs of September's cover girl Sienna Miller, complaining about her teeth or that her hair is "lacklustre". In moments like these, it doesn't feel like art, it just feels catty. I mean, Sienna Miller is lacklustre? Really? Did they see Layer Cake?
The redeeming element here is the secondary portrait of Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue, who seems to wield every bit as much power and influence as Wintour does at the magazine. Grace is fiercely talented, funny, and prickly. Her love-hate relationship with Wintour, as she struggles to keep her favourite pieces from getting edited out of the tent-pole September issue, is the heart of the movie, as she is the only one who will (or maybe can) stand up to Wintour. Grace is an odd-looking figure when we first meet her, a stark-contrast to Wintour, pale and thin with a wild main of orange hair. She began her career as a model, a trajectory that was interrupted by a car crash, and she evolved into the industry's greatest stylist. As Wintour herself puts it, "No one can do what Grace does." After seeing her incredible designs on display in Cutler's movie, I'm inclined not to think of Wintour's praise as hyperbole. Grace lends the picture much warmth, humour and character.
There are plenty of other "characters" that show up to bow down to queen Wintour, or bitch behind her back, and some are wonderful to watch and to listen to, none more so than Andre Leon Talley, who is runway-perfect even while playing tennis. The footage of Talley sweating through his mandatory tennis practice ("Anna says I have to lose weight", he tells us matter-of-factly) is one of the picture's high points, a truly likable guy who comes off like a gay, black, John Candy as he comically struggles to keep up with his instructor. We don't know if its a bit of cruelty or compassion at the root of this imposed exercise Wintour has doled out to the hefty Talley, and the answer is probably a bit of both. Whenever Talley shows up the picture is a little more vibrant. Someone should give him a reality show while they're handing those out.
At the end of the day, The September Issue has more cultural weight as a magazine than a movie and I prefer the Meryl Streep version. And for an art film with fashion at its core, I would recommend the equally fluffy, but much underrated Robert Altman picture, "Pret A Porter". This doc just didn't have enough of the devil, and come to think of it, there wasn't much prada either.
"The September Issue" opens in theatres in limited release in Canada by E1 Entertainment