Cultures collide in “First Monday in May,” a behind-the-scenes peek at the making of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass” and its premiere courtesy of the Anna Wintour-spearheaded Met Gala. With considerable access to these twin productions, director Andrew Rossi charts the clash between a variety of old and new world forces. Eventually less an in-depth investigation than a superficial celebration of disparate styles, it’s a tribute to the Met — and especially its star Costume Institute curator, Andrew Bolton — that should fit discerning audiences like a finely tailored glove after its premiere as the opening night selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
“It’s a kind of theater … fashion can create a dream, create a fantasy,” opines Wintour at the opening of “First Monday in May” — named after the date of the Met Gala. Such fanciful inventiveness is at the heart of “China: Through the Looking Glass,” a look at traditional Chinese fashion, as well as the dialogue between West and East clothing and iconography. The meeting between seemingly incongruent forces was at the heart of Bolton’s career-defining 2011 exhibition “Andrew McQueen: Savage Beauty,” which showcased the beauty and horror of the British designer’s work only a year after his untimely death, and it assumes center stage again in his latest, via his show’s customary Chinese garb and its more Asian-influenced works by John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld.
Bolton is acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of such an exhibition — the prime one being that audiences view its juxtapositions as overly weighted toward the West’s appropriation of Chinese style. That comes to the fore most bluntly during a press interview during Bolton and Wintour’s tour of China, though “First Monday in May” never properly dramatizes how the curator navigates, much less resolves, such thorny presentational obstacles; instead, it merely takes his word that they’ll be handled delicately, and then proceeds to other topics.
Those include “Vogue” editor-in-chief Wintour’s role in both “China: Through the Looking Glass” and, especially, the Met Gala, the glitzy fashion world “Super Bowl” that raises millions for the Institute by attracting political, fashion, movie and music luminaries. The red-carpet arrival of modern celebrity power at the classical Met — and the resultant marriages forged between the gallery and the runway, the museum and commerce — is, according to more than one talking head, the source of some contentiousness. Yet here, the film (whose score includes tunes from Nat King Cole and Cat Power) seems to be creating straw men for the benefit of greater dramatic tension, as the overarching scene depicted is one of “high” and “low” art in comfortable symbiotic company.
Director Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”) equates Wintour’s notorious “The Devil Wears Prada”-inspired reputation to the “dragon lady” stereotype pioneered by Hollywood actress Anna May Wong nearly a century earlier. That intertwined relationship between fashion, art and the movies is furthered by Bolton’s decision to have “In the Mood for Love” director Wong Kar-wai serve as the show’s artistic director, as well as the participation of “Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann in planning the event — which also features projections of movies such as “The Last Emperor” and “Farewell My Concubine.” In these subtle touches, the filmmaker most quietly, and convincingly, affirms fashion’s legitimacy as an art form akin to that of other expressive mediums.
Detailing the eight-month build-up to the show’s debut, “First Monday in May” is most compelling when simply taking up residence alongside Bolton, Wintour and Wong as they oversee the myriad aspects of their production, from table-seating strategizing, to lighting configuration conversations, to logistical layout plans for what becomes the Met’s largest show ever, replete with an entranceway decorated by a vase comprised of 250,000 roses and a grand staircase lined with foliage.
When its triumphant unveiling arrives, director Rossi’s gliding camera takes us through the museum’s corridors alongside the evening’s famous guests, whose vapid “oohs” and “aahs” undercut the sheer beauty of Bolton’s elaborate presentation. While attendance by the likes of Bradley Cooper, Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, Rihanna (who performs) and Justin Bieber may keep the Costume Institute afloat and relevant, “First Monday in May” reveals them to be mere distractions from the true star of the show: the charismatic, artistically inspired Bolton.