There’s a moment in “The September Issue” in which it seems, perhaps, that Miss Anna Wintour regrets. She’s just explained that her siblings work in global labor organization, in arranging low-income housing and as the political editor of the Guardian. “My brothers and sister are very amused by what I do,” she says, biting her lip, and for a second you believe that “Nuclear” Wintour, the famously glacial, controlling and all-powerful editor-in-chief of American Vogue, secretly wishes she’d gotten a medical degree and went off to Sudan with Doctors Without Borders. And then you don’t, because throughout R.J. Cutler’s documentary, which spans the assembling of the 2007 September issue of Vogue, the largest and most important of the year, Wintour keeps such a tight rein on how she’s portrayed that even moments of vulnerability seem calculated. It’s not much of a complaint — I would have loved a bit more depth, a bit more of something from the film, which skims merrily along the surface of its captivating topic, but the more you see of Wintour, the more it becomes clear that a creature that eats, sleeps and breathes media simply does not have unguarded moments in front of the camera.
Fortunately, “The September Issue” also has Grace Coddington, a former fashion model who’s now what a colleague calls the world’s greatest stylist, who’s Vogue‘s creative director and the one staff member unafraid to tell Wintour what she actually thinks — the others simper in constant terror and fold immediately when challenged. In a telling moment, Coddington confesses that she complained about her budget in front of the “September Issue” camera crew deliberately, as having such a think caught on tape is the only way to force Wintour to dole out more cash, the two yanking the doc team into their career-long push-pull without hesitation, an act that’s later echoed by the cameraman being enlisted in a shoot. Brash and down-to-earth, Coddington is the accessible answer to Wintour’s immaculate deadpan, and “The September Issue”‘s a warmer place because of her. But more interesting than any human drama are the instances we see of Vogue‘s power and place in the fashion industry. What the magazine does goes far beyond the realms of journalism in any sense. Wintour actively critiques and shapes the collections of established design houses before they’re completed; she hooks Thakoon, a young designer she likes, up with a career-making gig because she can; she runs interference on behalf of stores like Neiman Marcus when they need items that are actually wearable, not just hyper-stylish. It seems like a closed and terribly small bubble, until you realize that outside the camera’s gaze is a whole world that will feel the impact of the decisions being made by such a select group of people, by, often, just one woman, even if it’s only in what everyone chooses to wear.
“The September Issue” currently has no U.S. distribution. See all of IFC.com’s Sundance coverage here.
[Photo: “The September Issue,” A&E IndieFilms, 2009]