"September Issue" chips away at the Ice Queen’s image
January 23, 2009
"The September Issue," a sumptuous documentary in this year’s Sundance Film Festival competition, offers up more than a visual feast it also presents a complex portrait of two women, Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington.
As editor-in-chief and creative director respectively, Wintour and Coddington form the nucleus of Vogue magazine. But the two women could not be more different.
Wintour, widely regarded as the model for Lauren Weisberger’s main character in the best selling novel "The Devil wears Prada," is perfectly groomed, decisive and emotionally distant. Coddington, with her unstyled mane of red hair and shapeless shift, is warm-hearted, sensitive and clearly subservient to Wintour.
But by the end of RJ Cutler’s film, viewers come to see that Wintour is more vulnerable than she appears and Coddington is strong and shrewd in her own way.
As if the visuals of high fashion in Paris, Rome and New York are not enough, Cutler immediately sinks his hook with a disarming opening scene.
Wintour looks directly into the camera and acknowledges how controversial her life’s work has become.
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"People are afraid of fashion. It makes them insecure. People say things about our industry — they mock it," says Wintour with a hint of hurt feelings.
Moments later, though, she is in full stride. As she heads toward her office, the camera cuts away to the staff frantically preparing for her arrival. Wintour makes an elegant, inscrutable entrance and delivers a series of brusque judgments.
When asked whether she would compare her boss to a high priestess, a staffer pauses, as if to soften the comparison, but instead blurts out, "Well, pope, actually."
The plot of the documentary is centered on the creation of the September 2007 issue of Vogue, the biggest in the magazine’s 114-year history.
But it is immediately apparent that Wintour, while she retains the final right of refusal for every article and photograph in the magazine, is deeply dependent on a cadre of talented people, most importantly Coddington.
Cutler demonstrates a keen eye for the subtle competitiveness and interdependency of the two women as they hire models, concoct elaborate photo shoots and then try to compile months of work into a cohesive book.
Along the way, viewers learn that the plain-looking Coddington was a stunning model until suffering facial injuries in a car accident many years earlier. And they hear Wintour, in a rare unguarded moment, worry about what her siblings think of her profession.
"The September Issue" is a beautifully crafted film of stunning subjects. But it is also a fascinating character study. Fortunately those who did not get to see the movie at Sundance will probably get to see it on the A&E cable TV channel (A&E helped to finance production) or on DVD in the near future.