Behind the bias cut

Kevin Macdonald on fashion, alcoholism, cancel culture and High & Low – John Galliano

by Jennie Kermode

High & Low - John Galliano
High & Low - John Galliano Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

“He's a fascinating character,” says filmmaker Kevin Macdonald of the fashion designer John Galliano. “There's so many of mysteries around him as a character, I suppose. And you don't want to go into making a documentary knowing how you're going to end up at the end. You want to go on a journey and obviously take the audience on a journey, changing their minds and deepening their perception of somebody.”

Although he’s had a lower profile in recent years, most people will know something of the designer’s work, at least when they see it. They’ll probably also recall him as a controversial figure, an obnoxious drunk whose downfall came when he was caught on camera making antisemitic remarks. John has now been sober for several years and refers to those remarks as “disgusting,” but should he be forgiven? That’s one of the questions asked by Kevin’s documentary, High & Low – John Galliano, which screened at part of the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival. I asked Kevin why he chose to take on this complicated subject.

“He just seemed to me like a fascinating person who touched on many issues that are fascinating to me about cancel culture, about bigotry and antisemitism, about relationships with fashion and both beauty and ugliness. Also, to me, to make film about fashion, something I knew nothing about, had probably very stereotypical ideas about as silly and superficial, that sort of thing – to actually take it seriously was a challenge to me and I learned to appreciate it as an art form. I really enjoyed doing that.”

He confesses to being uncomfortable about John himself, at the outset.

“Casting my mind back to when I first saw the video of him in 2011, I was just repulsed by it, and repulsed by him and the way he looked. But that kind of sense of why, trying to understand my own feelings of revulsion and trying not to be too judgmental, that was an interesting part of it. I very quickly grew to like him and think that he was quite a warm and funny person. And we had very good, long conversations, and he didn't seem to try to hide anything. He's very open and never had PR people around. He never refused to answer any questions, never tried to control the film. So, yeah, it was an interesting, enjoyable thing to make.”

I tell him that I don’t think it’s a simple thing to treat John as singularly awful for his antisemitic remarks when there are, sad to say, probably a lot of people who think that way but don’t openly express it because they’re not alcoholics.

“I agree with you,” he says. “At what level is somebody racist or antisemitic? I think some of us might have those opinions deep down in us, and we don't really articulate them or know them – or consciously, we know they're unacceptable, so they don't come out unless your conscious mind is switched off by drugs or drink.

“I think then the question becomes, well, should we be punished for things that we didn't consciously say? Is that really who we are? Does alcohol loosen us up to reveal who we really are, or does it show a person who is not who we really are? So all of these questions, I think, are really interesting, and I think go to the heart of the film. But obviously, the other half of the film is an art film about somebody who's a very talented fashion designer, and the way that those two sides of the movie integrate is, I guess, what makes it unusual.”

I note that people weren’t really talking about cancel culture, back then, in the way they do today.

He nods. “It was one of the first cancellations, certainly in the way that we understand it now. It was the early days of Twitter, the early days of people feeling they could or should video and photograph people when they're in dire situation and doing saying terrible things.”

When we talk about cancel culture we’re usually referring to people who have a lot of advantages, yet the documentary reveals that John really struggled during the early years of his career, and nobody really seems to put those things together and address how he was cancelled, back then, by a lack of opportunity.

“I think that's absolutely right. He was from a Spanish Gibraltan background, a working class family. His parents never spoke particularly good English. He was gay, very effeminate as a child. He was beaten by his father, and found an escape from the horrors of his reality in art, in fashion. I think when you understand that it gives you a different perception of what happens next.

“In some ways, it's an interesting story, just structurally, for me as a filmmaker, because there's been so many – and I've made a couple of them – rise and fall of the artist stories, which have all followed the same kind of trajectory. Somebody comes from nowhere, they become a huge star. End of Act One. Act Two, they're the biggest star in the world. Act Three, they crash to the ground with an addiction or whatever happens when they die. But with John's story, there's a fourth act because he crashes to the ground, but then he survives.

“That's what makes it unusual, that fourth act, where he has to explain what happened, where he has to think about what happened, where he has to try and change himself, reinvent himself. That is something that's more unusual but also makes it structurally quite hard.”

Kevin solved the problem, in part, by splicing sections of the story together with clips from Abel Gance’s 1927 biopic of Napoleon, which John recalls having gone to see at a pivotal point in his life. its influence keeps turning up in his fashion collections and his own clothing choices.

“That became a natural kind of way of thinking: what is the parallel? What is his fascination? And you can see the obvious parallel. They're both small, southern European men who come to the big city, come to Paris. They're outsiders who are not accepted, who are bullied and who make it big and take over. And then they have their Waterloo. Napoleon, of course, also lived on. He also had a second coming. He left Elba and had his hundred days, or whatever it's called, which led to Waterloo. That was his return after being exiled the first time. But the parallel isn't exact. It's also partly just that visually, it makes for a much more rich counterpoint to the main story.”

When he came to that story, did he understand just how big an impact John Galliano had had on fashion?

“No, I really didn't. And I found it quite hard for a long time to understand why he was so special, but I think I realised after a while. I got frustrated by the fact that fashion people are very bad at verbally articulating what's interesting about the show or why somebody is talented or whatever, but I realised after a while that's because you need to watch it. It's a bit like talking about painting.”

There some quite big names in the film, contributing to the conversation about fashion. Did they step forward when they heard about the film, or was it necessary to go out hunting for them?

“I went out hunting for people,” he says. “Some people said no because of the nature of the subject matter. But a lot of people, a surprising number of people, wanted to take part, actually, because they were very loyal to John. I think it reflects well on him. He had very loyal friendships.”

How did he decide which footage to use from the fashion shows themselves?

“Not every one of the early shows was very well shot, so there was little choice, in a way,” he says. “But it was the things that, to me, stood out as, I guess, being the most extraordinary to an untrained eye, or being the pieces that somehow related to his life, where there was a really direct parallel.”

We talk about the way that the film brings in elements of John’s addictive personality: the drinking, but also his use of the gym and the way that he approaches his work.

“You're trying to sprinkle that stuff in without overwhelming people,” Kevin says, “because everyone kind of knows this sort of story and where it goes. They know that it's not going to end well when somebody's drinking a lot. So you don't want to overplay that to begin with. And obviously, in his life, he was able to function pretty happily for a long time while also being an alcoholic.

“He's very happy to talk about most things. He finds talking about his childhood difficult. I think there's a lot of pain that he finds there. I think it's why he still hasn't seen his sisters, for instance, for a long time, because they remind him of that childhood and he's just trying to escape from there.”

The Glasgow Film Festival has a strong history of supporting films about fashion, but more importantly, for Kevin, it’s a festival to which he feels a personal connection.

“I'm from Glasgow. It’s where I went to the cinema for the first time, the old ABC and the Odeon. And I love coming back to Glasgow. I was there not long ago doing a Q&A for the Powell and Pressburger season, and I come to the festival whenever I can, so it seemed like the perfect place for High & Low, but it's more just I like being in Glasgow.”

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