A remarkable figure is remembered to haunting effect in McQueen, opening at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (August 10). "I dream about him quite often," says filmmaker Peter Ettedgui. "He really does get under your skin.”
Ettedgui and his co-director Ian Bonhôte faced an unfathomably difficult task when they took on the life of the British fashion designer Alexander Lee McQueen, who died by his own hand at the peak of his stratospheric success in 2010.
Boasting its own extravagantly high style, the film is structured around five of the iconoclastic figure’s most significant collections, including 1992’s Jack the Ripper-themed graduation project and 2009’s Plato’s Atlantis, the show that would serve as his masterpiece and finale.
“There are a couple of things where we felt we were guided by his sacred commandments,” continues Ettedgui, calling the Georgia Straight from Toronto. “One was that if you want to know about him, you have to look at his work. He said that several times. So we took him at his word.”
Still, while Bonhôte and Ettedgui do admirable service to McQueen’s otherworldly creative fire—we’re left with a clear sense of the man’s genius thanks to the film’s voluptuous archival footage and intimate interview subjects—it’s the life arc, as ever, that really fascinates.
In this case an otherwise unremarkable East End Londoner punched through Britain’s ancient class system through sheer, blistering talent, and was driven, we’re left to suppose, by the trauma he endured as a child. Both his sister Janet and nephew Gary appear onscreen to discuss the sexual abuse McQueen suffered at the hands of his brother-in-law.
“I think they were very brave as well as honest to go on camera and talk about this, and we are so grateful that they did because, in a way, it had to be them. It had to come from them,” says Ettedgui. "It was in the public domain, and had been for some time, so it’s not like we were trying to come up with some kind of new angle, some new sensationalistic thing, but it’s so important in terms of understanding his work and trajectory. I think we had several people say to us, ‘You can’t understand Lee or his work without having a window onto that.’ These were formative things in his life.”
Indeed, McQueen's extreme theatrical flair on the runway was almost always in tandem with themes of violence, whether it came as the open provocation of 1995's Highland Rape collection or the more outre sight of Shalom Harlow being assaulted, in a fashion, by paint ejaculating robots in 1999—both revisited in luxurious detail in the film.
That said, Ettedgui eschews the popular notion that talent on this scale appears very often to be forged in extreme pain. But, he adds, “it does seem to be a lesson that comes at you again and again and again as you investigate people’s lives and creativity, and you often see that quality of having suffered and then being able to come back from the coal face of that suffering with this magic.”