Back to IndieWire

Tribeca Review: Documentary ‘The First Monday in May’ Explores Art & Fashion With Anna Wintour And Andrew Bolton

Tribeca Review: Documentary 'The First Monday in May' Explores Art & Fashion With Anna Wintour And Andrew Bolton

Art, fashion, commerce and celebrity collide in this entertaining documentary from “Page One” filmmaker Andrew Rossi. Using the annual Met Gala and the corresponding launch of a new exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as its centerpiece, “The First Monday in May” asks if fashion is truly a fine art or merely a decorative one. The film largely argues for fashion’s placement in the pantheon with painting and sculpture, but commercialism and celebrity culture — as well as a few internal detractors like designer Karl Lagerfeld  threaten to undermine its status.
Held on the first Monday in May, the Met Gala is an annual event to raise money for the museum and celebrate style. Accompanied by muses wearing their designs, top-tier designers attend, as well as celebrities as wide-ranging as Miley Cyrus, George and Amal Clooney, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Larry David. At the heart of “The First Monday in May” lie two fascinating personalities as they attempt to mount this epic event for the Met. As Condé Nast’s artistic director, Vogue’s editor-in-chief and the Met Gala’s chair, Anna Wintour is one of the biggest names in the industry, often eclipsing both models and designers. Lesser known, but no less intriguing, is the Met’s curator of the Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton. The curator is tasked with not only making sure the Met Gala is a success, but is also responsible for the Costume Institute’s newest exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” With an alternately reverential and gently self-mocking approach, the documentary begins following the pair with eight months before the exclusive gala opening, as time grows ever shorter and the guest list and budget threaten to grow larger.
The concerns aren’t just logistical. There’s a constant seesaw of balancing the needs of the Costume Institute, Vogue, the Asian Art Department and the museum as a whole. In addition to the internal issues, “The First Monday in May” also addresses concern around the representation of China and its cultures in fashion overall as well as in the exhibit specifically. Jean Paul Gaultier does the industry no favors when he asserts that it is better for his fellow designers to only experience China through movies and books, rather than visiting the country. Asking for cultural sensitivity from the man behind Madonna’s cone corset may be too much.
“The First Monday in May” also tries to answer accusations of vapidity in the fashion world by addressing a large number of issues, including cultural sensitivity, Orientalism and feminism. It’s a sometimes ambitious offering, but it never really fully explores the topics it raises. In particular, the film fails to answer the question of representation of Chinese culture in this event as well as the whole industry of fashion. A particularly telling scene in Beijing finds Wintour and Bolton awkwardly attempting to answer a Chinese journalist’s queries about how the country’s present will be shown in the exhibit (it won’t be). There’s a constant emphasis on how the exhibit is a “fantasized vision of China,” which is supposed to explain why most of the designs shown are from American and European designers with only a few exceptions. 
The documentary does adequately answer the question of whether or not elaborate dresses deserve to be shown next to classical works of art, through both dialogue and what’s shown on screen. Though Lagerfeld strongly asserts that what he and his colleagues create isn’t art, a number of others come to fashion’s defense, and the work often speaks for itself. Lighting and cinematography from Rossi and Bryan Sarkinen capture the beauty of the exhibited designs, as well as the surrounding art, the location’s architecture, and the attendees. The camera lovingly lingers over details, both of the designs and the craftsmanship in their creation. 
With Condé Nast Entertainment as one of its production companies, “The First Monday in May” might seem like a 90-minute ad for the Vogue brand and its living embodiment in Wintour. However, it doesn’t shy away from showing Wintour in an unflattering light. Not literally, of course, because she always looks great. But her attitude toward targets as diverse as current Chinese culture, museum visitors and lesser Hollywood stars often isn’t endearing, not that she’s here to make friends. The documentary does celebrate her as a feminist trailblazer who wouldn’t be as criticized for her ambition and demeanor if she were a man. Meanwhile, it also pokes fun at her reputation in the industry and beyond thanks to “The Devil Wears Prada.” 
Like a gown that has one too many decorative elements, “The First Monday in May” has just a little too much going on in its exploration of the Met Gala and the Costume Institute. Though it delves into a number of topics beyond fashion, it refrains from breaking through the glossy surface. It will appeal to fans of Wintour’s brand and style devotees, but it likely won’t make too many converts outside her kingdom. [B-]

This Article is related to: Reviews and tagged , , , , ,