Just as last week’s big-screen documentary entry, It Might Get Loud, had an inherently varied appeal depending on one’s love of rock guitar lore, The September Issue also self-selects its fans. Fashionistas will slobber, while those who see the fashion world as hopelessly self-absorbed will priggishly squirm, and those on the fence might be both seduced and repelled.
But never mind for a minute the question of fashion’s place in the contemporary human tragicomedy. From the standpoint of the documentary form, R.J. Cutler’s film is a mesmerizing entity unto itself. Here he has pieced together a fascinating glimpse into the fashion scene, disguised as a narrative tracing the intense creation of Vogue magazine’s potently influential “2007 September Issue.” Along the way, moving from N.Y.C. to locales in Europe and back, Cutler wisely sizes up the key subplot maintaining all-important dramatic tension and mystique: He circles around the carefully self-enclosed enigma of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who variously is called the “pope” of fashion and “the most powerful woman in the world.”
She is an imperious and omnipotent force, played in only slightly fictionalized form by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Eyeing runways, casually killing ideas and designs in her Vogue domain, and otherwise spreading fear and loving, Wintour appears in the film as a pretty but power-mad figure, encased in sunglasses and helmet hair. Cutler never really penetrates her hard veneer much, and coyly ends the film with her curtly asking her interviewer, “So what else?” Alas, though, he has a friend in Wintour’s creative director Grace Coddington, British and stubborn like her boss, but willing to freely open up and establish a relationship with the filmmaker.
Beyond the uniqueness of fashion culture, and the unique high pressure behind the scenes of Vogue, The September Issue offers an intriguing study in the friction and creative energies that produce a magazine. Remember those? A logical sequel, postWall Street malaise, would address the emaciated state of print journalism. As the film hits the screen, this month’s Vogue is only a shadow of its former self, making this something of an instant period piece.