High & Low
John Galliano

France/USA/UK 2023, 116 mins
Director: Kevin Macdonald

Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (Marley, Whitney) turns his camera towards the life and career of the gifted fashion designer and head of Dior, who caused outrage following a drunken, anti-Semitic tirade in 2011. Featuring the man himself, alongside figures from the fashion world, the film deftly investigates John Galliano’s childhood, celebrated work, mental health and addiction struggles, and his long road to redemption.

John Galliano is the fashion designer who should have earned a documentary for raising haute couture to a new level of daring, dazzle, refinement and esteem, but instead disgraced himself with antisemitic and other racist abuse of strangers in a Paris bar. Kevin Macdonald’s film seeks to weigh not just his lopsided life story but our value system: how do you judge someone’s accomplishments against their sins? Should we separate the art from the artist? How do we apportion power and opportunity – and responsibility and compassion? How do you atone, and who judges that?

High & Low is built around an interview Galliano gave Macdonald in his Mediterranean retreat: he speaks direct to camera, eyes imploring, a deep cigarette drag following his vow of candour, though he will prove a better raconteur of his life than analyst. He doesn’t broach his motives for participation, which could be reputation or legacy management or perhaps a quest for understanding. Around that, dozens of talking heads bring testimony from across his 63 years: so many they sometimes become a cacophony, words detaching from speakers’ identities, though that gives a sense of the mass-observing lens Galliano found himself under. The film doesn’t hide the possibility that it could aid Galliano’s redemption – it ’s co-produced by Vogue publisher Condé Nast, whose executives include Galliano supporters past and present, and his runway (and Brit jet-set) comrades Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell contribute. But Macdonald also consults family and former collaborators Galliano left behind, and a still-scarred victim of his abuse. And as we see, Galliano has already won a swift career reprieve – he was given the intriguing invitation to succeed the reticent founder of Maison Margiela, where he has now worked ten years.

It’s a talky film, but rich in archive, too, reaching back to Galliano’s apolitical, suburban south London youth in the Thatcher era (‘He was into labels and stuff,’ sniffs a tutor) and his creative coming out as a Central Saint Martins student, an ugly-duckling story of a repressed Gibraltar immigrant becoming, he says, a ‘peacock’. (You might see Galliano’s pride and fall as a parable of the New Labour years.)

The gear shifts of his career are marked: his 1984 graduation show, ‘Les Incroyables’, inspired by post-revolutionary French youth (‘in the top five fashion shows I’ve ever seen,’ opines one critic); the 1994 shoestring ‘Black Show’ arranged by Vogue’s André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour to platform the bankrupt Galliano in Paris (‘For the next ten years women went out in black slip dresses,’ Wintour recalls); his hiring in 1995 by Givenchy, the first Englishman in a century to run a Parisian fashion house, and his move the next year to Dior. But it’s the inspiration the student Galliano found in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) that provides a visual through line and Macdonald’s main directorial flourish. High & Low continually raids Napoleon for clips, dropping them in to illustrate the beats of Galliano’s life with the satisfying neatness of puzzle pieces. What’s not spelled out is what Napoleon meant to Galliano: pure style? Self-belief? Supremacy?

There’s also a cinephile wink in another borrowing, The Red Shoes (1948), co-directed by Macdonald’s grandfather Emeric Pressburger, whose infernal dance of creative devotion is used to suggest Galliano’s own blowout under the weight of success and its demons: overexposure and corporate exploitation, workaholism, drink, (prescription) drugs, isolation. The analogy captures the pathos in Galliano’s story – a man trapped by his talent for fantasy and escape.

As for measuring Galliano by his offences, the film – a little like Citizen Kane (1941) – offers the audience depositions from past acquaintances. There are character clues throughout, notes of repression and recklessness and dependency, though no perfect keys. Most clearly, he had long been a nasty drunk; at his worst, he says, he was hallucinating, and he was banned from 20 London hotels. How to judge a drunk, and the hate he denies when sober? Interviewees speculate on received antisemitism, an urge to selfdestruct, the worth of his public penance. The film finds trails of damage, received and wrought. The Jewish head of Dior talks of waiting more than seven years for an apology. But before the incident, Galliano was allowed to fire his secretary for sounding the alarm about his mental health. Philippe Virgitti – whose verbal abuse by him in a cafe has been magnified while the world works through Galliano’s shame – volunteers his testimony again: his trauma shows. Marlene Dietrich’s summation in Touch of Evil (1958) seems applicable. ‘He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?’ And when millions keep saying it?
Nick Bradshaw, Sight and Sound, April 2024

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Production Companies: KGB Films, Condé Nast Entertainment
Producers: Kevin Macdonald, Chloe Macdonald
Cinematography: David Harriman, Magda Kowalczyk, Patrick Blossier, Nelson Hume
Film Editor: Avdhesh Mohla
Music: Tom Hodge

France-USA-UK 2023
116 min

Courtesy of MUBI

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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