“The First Monday in May” opens to the luminescent glow of celebrity fashion. The calculated muscle memory of a movie star posing for pictures. In this particular instance, on the runway of a terrifically exclusive exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, affluent outfits dot the red carpet. Dresses with rose piping appear. Mammoth and ostentatious headdresses bob up the stairs. Justin Bieber appears in something that Thomas Dolby would have worn in the 1980s. And, if out of nowhere, Rihanna materializes, perforating the elegant madness of the show in the yellow plumage of a luxurious Guo Pei gown. The enormity of style, fame, and culture paint broad strokes over the Met’s “China: Through the Looking Glass”, an exhibit that illustrates Eastern history with a lilt of contemporary Western flair.
Leading up to the museum’s celebrated unveiling, we are given full access to the elaborate, laborious, and often times maddening construction of the exhibit. We follow Vogue editor Anna Wintour and Met curator Andrew Bolton into the teeth of various war rooms: photographs are carefully pinned to partitions, papers leaf the tables, and inquisitive chin rubbing is the norm. Director Andrew Rossi’s glides, ever so quietly, behind Anna and Andrew for the duration of the documentary. Making himself unnoticed, he siphons the tension, excitement, and comedy from the subjects around him. The best exchanges, however, come from Wong Kar-wai, movie director and artistic director for the exhibition in question. He warns against unintentionally arousing anger from the East with some of Bolton’s stylistic preferences. “Seeing too much is to see nothing,” Wong muses in the back of a limo, as Andrew nods in furtive agreement.
Aside from micromanaging the celebrity attendants, Wintour’s crew must make sure to not fall into cultural pratfalls that might accidentally plague them. It’s a hypnotic waltz of communication and strategy. Pinwheels of post-it notes denote the location of celebrity guests. Certain phrases must be said during performances. The entrance to the exhibit is discussed ad neaseam. Meanwhile, Ian and Sofia Hultquist’s score for the documentary is either curiously ambient or strained with importance by the use of panicked violins – the latter is somewhat distracting if not altogether irritating.
Anna Wintour’s personality, throughout the film, isn’t touched on too often. She is seen as being decisive, cool under pressure, and intelligent – and yet those traits don’t reveal her as a multidimensional person. Rossi doesn’t delve too deep. In a recent interview with Seth Meyers, Wintour humorously remarked that she was often times self-conscious about the way she walked in the doc. That small anecdote, even if inconsequential, discloses more about her sense of humor than Rossi’s 90-minute expose does. Andrew Bolton is given more time to let his personality flourish in the documentary. We learn about his childhood, about his introduction to fashion.
“The First Monday in May” also gives us bullet-points on various fashion mavericks, particularly Alexander McQueen (it’s impossible to imagine that Guillermo del Toro, Grimes, and Fever Ray were not inspired by his brand of art). The information in the film is endlessly entertaining: it’s a fascinating portrait of passion, culture, and time management. The lavish lionization of wealth, exclusivity, and celebrity, particularly in the second half of the documentary, is enough to make Robespierre reanimate and start a second French Revolution, though – they could have scaled back a notch or two. “The First Monday in May”, opening April 15 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas, is worthy of being seen by both art and documentary enthusiasts alike.