After it happened, the collision of Gianni Versace with his assassin, Andrew Cunanan, seemed to have the aura of inevitability. On the one hand, there was the most ostentatious fashion designer of all time, a man who loved the good life with full Italian passion, who lived a life free of bodyguards and the like. On the other, there was the celebrity wannabe gone bad, a gigolo killer obsessed with attaining the good life and, when that failed, determined to find fame in someone else’s reflection. Both were lives fundamentally built on illusion, a similarity captured with a good degree of verve and intelligence, as well as a touch of overkill, in the documentary “Fashion Victim: The Killing of Gianni Versace.”
Among the saddest parts of that July 15, 1997, murder in Miami’s South Beach is that the killer got what he wanted. Versace and Cunanan; Cunanan and Versace. As this docu points out, the names are now inextricably, tragically linked. Versace’s life, his triumphs in the fashion world, his lavish lifestyle, his friendships with the famous and flamboyant, will now always be interpreted through the lens of his death. And director James Kent doesn’t shy away from these interpretations, either. He’s got a couple of good cultural interpreters in French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck and fashion provocatuer Malcom McLaren. “They shouldn’t call them fashion magazines,” says Buck. “They should call them longing magazines.” And when their words don’t go far enough to capture the grand drama of the House of Versace he’s out to depict, Kent throws in a shot of the sacking of ancient Rome.
Some of this goes a bit far, but then again, that was perhaps the essence of Versace himself. The shots of ancient Rome don’t seem so far off from the “exclusive footage” of Versace’s extravagantly decorated South Beach mansion, where Gianni lived with his lover of 15 years, Antonio D’Amico. After the murder, D’Amico was pushed away by Versace’s sister Donatella and the rest of the family as they sought to salvage their big business, the creation of which takes up an appropriate portion of Marisa Berenson’s narration. Interviews with D’Amico take us inside Versace’s life, always with respect and compassion, and he certainly comes off as a classy guy, far from a hanger-on.
That point needs to be made, because Cunanan was a hanger-on; he would have loved nothing more than to have been in D’Amico’s place. It was after he was rejected by a wealthy sugar daddy in La Jolla, Calif., that he started the killing spree that took him cross country.
Author Maureen Orth provides background on Cunanan and the investigation (including the question of whether Versace was HIV positive). A few police officers along the way touch on other issues — did Cunanan know the wealthy businessman he murdered in Chicago? Friends of Cunanan discuss his descent into drugs and his ability to take on new identities to seduce a new target. The documentary, produced by Pascale Lamche, fills us in on all the essentials of the story in a solidly constructed narrative.
The issue of illusion is visually emphasized throughout. There’s the drag queen friend of Cunanan, discussing Andrew while applying makeup. And much of the Versace footage used is of the designer directing the elaborate fashion show that took place only days before his death. There’s lots of talk, and plenty of shots, of Versace’s marketing genius. Fashion, lest we forget, is illusion.
The most entertaining interviews of all, however, are with Andrew’s father, Peter Cunanan, who returned to his native Philippines because he was so disgusted with what he deems the conspiracy of the American media to railroad his son. It isn’t hard to take Peter’s obvious and extreme denial and see that Andrew was likely a chip off the old block, able to create whatever delusions he needed to go on.
Which brings us to this final point in regard to “Fashion Victim” — portraying Versace as a victim of the very illusion he helped create provides an interesting irony, but not necessarily a true one. Cunanan may have bought into the shallow values the fashion world puts forth — but that doesn’t explain his actions. He was a sick man from a sick family, made sicker by drugs. The aura of inevitability that surrounds the murder is itself an illusion. It needn’t have happened.