“Love, Cecil” demonstrates how a documentary can be a magical experience. I went into the film barely having heard of Cecil Beaton, who (as I learned) was one of the most incandescent photographers who ever lived. (He was also an artist, a writer, and a celebrated film and stage designer.) The reason I state my ignorance in such blunt terms — hey, I’m a film critic, not a photography scholar — is that for me, as I suspect will be the case for many others, the movie’s splendor lies in the sensation of being washed over by an elated experience of discovery.
The documentary tells the story of Beaton’s life, and it’s a moving and majestic one that spans many of the revolutions in perception that defined the 20th century. Yet “Love, Cecil” is rooted in the mind-bendingly eclectic splendor of Beaton’s images. He was a visionary fashion photographer, a fearless journalist of war, an indelible chronicler of celebrity, and — through every guise — possessed by the desire to create beauty. Directed with consummate craft by Lisa Immordino Vreeland (the granddaughter-in-law of the fashion magazine diva Diana Vreeland), and backed by a musical score, by Phil France, that’s as lushly seductive as its images, “Love, Cecil” is a fine biographical portrait, but a better way to describe it might be as a slide show from heaven.
Beaton was born in London in 1904, just four years after the death of Oscar Wilde, and part of the allure of his story is that he starts off very much as an Oscar Wilde figure: the wittiest of dandies, in thrall to the high gods of aestheticism, up front about his sexuality, with an air of aristocratic flamboyance that came less from his background (he was upper-middle-class but not elite — he had to charm his way into that rarefied echelon) than from the way his every cadence expressed a kinship with something higher. You might say that his spirit was born in the 19th century.
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Yet the timing of his birth made him the first version of someone baptized in the age of technology. He fell in love with photography early on, using his nanny’s Kodak 3A camera. And by the time he attended St. John’s College in Cambridge in the 1920s, the way that he’d begun to straddle eras boggles the mind.
We see photographs of Beaton and his friends, known as “The Bright Young Things” (a phrase that sounds like it might have come out of a Pet Shop Boys song), and they are radical — and gay — in every way: a group of elegantly decadent, magnificently dressed, subtly gender-bending beautiful creatures. Beaton himself resembled a silent-movie version of Boy George (we see him in one clip from an avant-garde student film), and it’s as if he and his chums felt liberated to parade themselves as the wild things they were because of their privilege, but also because it melded with something more mysterious — an impulse toward mad freedom, still unnamed, that would define the century.
It’s that impulse that took Beaton to New York, where he photographed it all: the streets, the clothes, the disruptions of the new world. For all his jewel-box aestheticism, there was nothing precious about his talent — it was promiscuous, overflowing. He went to work for the already influential publisher Condé Nast and began to take photographs for Vogue, but to call his work “fashion photography” (though that, technically, is what it was) would be like calling Salvador Dalí a landscape painter. Each Beaton image was a dream: a heightened fantasy of existence, luxe and hallucinatory. The images resembled the most extravagant of movie stills, and part of their special quality is that gazing at them, you can feel the movie that each one of them implies. Yet it wasn’t just Hollywood that Beaton evoked. Swimming around in his satiny-surreal layer-cake tableaux was a visual spirit that would erupt, years later, in the fever dreams of Kenneth Anger.
Beaton’s career took off like a rocket to the stars (he was invited to work in Hollywood and did), but in 1938 it crashed in the most disturbing way. In a Vogue collage of New York high society that was full of so-tiny-as-to-be-barely-legible writing, he snuck in a micro bit of anti-Semitic graffiti (a note signed “Love, Kike”). The movie never makes it entirely clear why he did it. Even the obvious explanation — that Beaton harbored anti-Semitic feelings — doesn’t explain how he thought he could get away with it. Well, he didn’t. He was tossed out of Vogue and became a pariah, retiring to Ashcombe, the 18th-century English manor house that he purchased and lived in for the next seven years.
Yet it’s a sign of the kind of person Beaton was that his scandalous downfall became a new beginning. He did the most daring — and moral — thing that a photographer can do: dove deep into the theaters of war. We see his photographs of World War II, many of which have a graphic power comparable to the work of Robert Capa. The film makes the fascinating point that Beaton’s homosexuality allowed him to photograph soldiers with a focus on their intimate moods that most war photography lacks. He took over 7,000 photographs of the Second World War, starting with the Blitz, and the shot of his that made the Sept. 23, 1940, cover of Life magazine — the staring, bandaged head of a war orphan clutching a toy — is one of the most resonant of all images of war.
This was, on some level, Beaton’s atonement. But it was also a new expression of who he was as an artist: not merely a rarefied aesthete, but a photographer who possessed a spiritual X-ray vision. He saw right into his subjects, and let you see them too. That was the quality he carried into the second half of the century, where his portraits of celebrity (Audrey, Marilyn, Twiggy, Mick, Picasso, Warhol, Nicholson, Nureyev) remain a revelation of personality. He virtually created the British Royals — or, at least, our image of them.
He was nothing if not a man who knew how to mingle, yet the Cecil Beaton who emerges from “Love, Cecil” remains a passionate but lonely figure, haunted by the lovers he couldn’t sustain a bond with. (Most of them were men, but they included Greta Garbo.) Throughout the film, we see clips of an in-depth TV interview with Beaton from the ’70s (he died in 1980, at the age of 76), and he comes off as a more dryly grounded version of Quentin Crisp as played by Alec Guinness. He’s a man of wit, boldness, yet self-deprecation who made friends and enemies with equal gusto. Passages from his published diaries are read on the soundtrack by the velvet voice of Rupert Everett, and they are the plummiest of thoughts shot through with the most wistful of feelings. The pleasure of “Love, Cecil” is that it puts you in touch with someone who was intoxicated by life in the same way that he swooned for art. He thought it was all to die for.