The skull was the signature motif of the Alexander McQueen design house well before its brilliant, volatile founder committed suicide in 2010. A symbol of dark, sparse morbidity that always jarred amid the more straightforwardly glamorous imagery of McQueen’s haute couture rivals, it was fully emblematic of a design sensibility always intended to disrupt sensuality with violence, to query what the fashion industry held sacred and beautiful. Since his death, however, the logo has functioned as a monument to his memory — perhaps even a bittersweet reminder that the signs of his tragic demise were always there.
In their supremely elegant and engrossing documentary “McQueen,” Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui appropriate the skull as a sleek, flexibly recurring cinematic image, restyling it from chapter to chapter as a marker of both McQueen’s evolving aesthetic and his deteriorating state of mind. It’s a device that could be gauche, but is executed with such panache and emotional integrity that it find a roundabout way toward grace — not unlike their subject’s own stunning catwalk creations, which challenged wearers and observers alike with broken rules of form and function. Itself crafted with great artistry and ingenuity, “McQueen” works both as a spectacular visual album of his work and an achingly moving account of the incomplete life behind it. That’s a rare balance to strike in the fashion-doc subgenre, and one that should yield audience interest beyond the rag-trade niche — as did the blockbuster museum retrospective of his work, aptly named “Savage Beauty,” on both sides of the Atlantic some years back.
The young Lee McQueen, for his part, never fit snugly into the fashionista set. A chubby, working-class lad from London’s underprivileged Stratford region, he was later persuaded by his adoring industry mentor Isabella Blow to professionally assume Alexander, his middle name, “because it sounded posher.” His earliest years in the industry saw him treated as an endearing novelty: As a teen, he began knocking on Savile Row doors in search of an apprenticeship, wowing amused couturiers with his cutting and tailoring skills, and eventually earning a place at the venerable Central St. Martin’s art college. McQueen swiftly channelled his misfit status into his clothes, drawing upon unlikely, viscerally unsavory influences in his bluntly named early collections, 1992’s “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” and 1995’s “Highland Rape,” and arousing industry and media controversy in the process.
Yet the film’s wealth of archive catwalk footage show McQueen’s work, although strongly idiomatic of the liberal, gung-ho hedonism that dominated British culture in the 1990s, has aged rather well: not just in its visual expansion of accepted styles and silhouettes, but in its abrasive, richly debatable engagement with the industry’s abuse and sexualization of women. “Highland Rape,” in which models were sent down a bramble-strewn runway in tattered ensembles and bruised makeup, was decried as misogynistic, and likely would be today, though McQueen insisted it was questioning rather than complicit.
The directors fluidly use such discussions as cues to examine McQueen’s own inner demons, the frank personal testimony of family, friends and colleagues adding vital context to the dazzling theater of the macabre that was his oeuvre. “McQueen” presents his designs as inextricable from his psychology, the mark of an artist rather than a businessman, even as his fashion brand grew beyond his expectations. He was as surprised as anyone else when old-school Parisian fashion house Givenchy invited him to be their chief designer in 1996. Though working under another imprint gave him some experience in separating his darkest impulses from commerce, the need to express himself more wildly in his own line necessitated an unsustainable, drug-fueled work rate that did an already fragile psyche few favors.
“McQueen’s” final sections — titled “tapes” in the film, and themed around his collections — play poignantly as the comedown after the trip, its talking heads often on the brink of tears themselves as they reflect on a grief-riven personal collapse that McQueen partially masked through his consistently impeccable work. (Even viewers unmoved by fashion may feel a lump in the throat in an exquisite sequence on McQueen’s ravishing 2007 “La Dame Bleue” show, a visual elegy completed in the wake of Blow’s death from cancer.) If “McQueen” isn’t quite comprehensive as biography — among other blank spaces, there’s no mention of the designer’s late, unofficial husband George Forsyth, though other former partners are interviewed — it exhibits his art to far more emotionally evocative effect than a Wikipedia-like trawl through the facts ever could.
Finally, Bonhôte and Ettedgui (a writer on the similarly unusual, sinuous bio-doc “Listen to Me Marlon”) have succeeded most pleasingly in fashioning McQueen as an inherently cinematic subject, honoring his legacy with their own formal inventions and extravagances — chief among them a thrillingly sumptuous, high-drama score by Michael Nyman (himself a former McQueen collaborator) and a series of intricate interstitial animations centered on that all-important skull, infesting it with tangled foliage or draping it in gold, dictated by the tenor of his life and work over the years. A script for a narrative McQueen biopic has been doing the rounds for a few years: If it’s to top this doc as either portrait or tribute, it has its work finely cut out for it.