The 15th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival set sail Wednesday night with the world premiere of The First Monday in May, Andrew Rossi’s sharp documentary about the Met Gala. The Anna Wintour-directed shindig is described in the film by the Vogue editor-in-chief’s aide-de-camp and outsize fashion biz personality Andre Leon Talley, as “the Super Bowl of charity events.”
The subject might not, on first hearing, seem as compelling as Rossi’s last film, 2011’s Page One: Inside The New York Times. But he makes a strong case for the film as both an inside look at what the playwright Philip Barry called “the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” and the intellectual and ultimately poignant struggle of a curator to deliver something of cultural significance, in this case, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sweeping exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass.” The movie’s title refers to the lavish anniual fundraiser built around a show drawn from the Met’s important fashion collections, the Costume Institute. The gala secured its place as a barometer of social significance in 2011 with the surprise success of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” which, mounted shortly after the de trop designer’s suicide, became a must-see phenomenon attracting record crowds. Early on in the film, Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton makes no bones about wanting to break that record.
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Rossi was given plenty of access as Bolton and Wintour organize the troops, beginning about eight months before the exhibition is to open. They bring on Chinese film director Wong Kar-Wai as artistic director, who cautiously but firmly points out when his hosts are veering into stereotype and cultural imperialism, especially with their predilection for dragons and Frenchified chinoiserie, a point driven home during an uneasy interview with Bolton and Wintour conducted by a couple of skeptical Chinese journalists. And an exchange between Bolton and Wong over the placement of uniforms and clothing from the period of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution is powerful.
But it’s Wintour’s show, as her staff fret over table placement at the gala (the camera closes in on Wintour’s own placement, flanked by George Clooney and Bradley Cooper). Among her aesthetic guides is Moulin Rouge filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, and there are interviews with several fashion-house gods (along with Chinese designer Guo Pei, whose work is exquisite and, no surprise, very Vogue). Wintour doesn’t dispute her infamy as an ambition-driven control freak with ice in her veins, responding to the Devil Wears Prada charge with a now well-practiced rebuttal that the same qualities exhibited by a man would be regarded differently. Still, there is always someone waiting with her coffee, and when a Met underling suggests that her plans will require closing off the north wing for several days, preventing museum-goers access, she snaps, “So they’ll come next weekend.”
The First Monday In May picks up tension as the opening day approaches and Team Anna is weeks behind schedule. Bolton is adept in calming his nervous overseers while also asserting himself ever so diplomatically as the exhibition slowly comes into focus. Rossi captures a lovely moment when, as the show is about to open, he fusses with the line of a dress on a mannequin, a detail not too small for him. The arrival of the guests — among them Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Beyoncé and Jay Z — is topped by Rihanna, wrapped in an insanely elaborate, fur-trimmed gold cape by Guo Pei with a train that required several assistants to carry before she settled in for the evening and entertained the crowd. After all, she was the draw.
As for the crowd at the TFF opening at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s John Zuccotti auditorium a few blocks from the Tribeca Film Center, the draw was co-founder Robert De Niro, gracefully recovered from the Vaxxed controversy that put the TFF in an unwanted spotlight a few weeks ago. He stood all but silent as partner Jane Rosenthal welcomed the industry-heavy crowd and enumerated just how far the festival has come in a relatively short time. The First Monday In May, a solid and provocative choice for the opener, was Exhibit A.
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