Manolo: the Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards is a deliberately coy title for a film. If you’re unfamiliar with the world of high fashion—or you’ve never watched an episode of Sex and the City—it sounds like it could be an indie charmer about a kid who lives in the jungle. The boy in question, however, would go on to make shoes for way more than mere lizards. Director Michael Roberts’ profile of Manolo Blahnik, arguably the greatest living shoe designer, is frothy and light. He does not delve into his subject, seemingly out of respectful deference, to the point where there is little detail into Blahnik’s life. Roberts is content to let Blahnik inflate his persona, so there are more questions than answers.
Blahnik grew up in the Canary Islands, only to make a name for himself in the high fashion districts of Paris, London, and eventually New York. Blahnik narrates his own back story, conjuring a romantic notion of himself. His talent is preternatural, and he seemingly never had to struggle because he would charm everyone he met. The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards includes interviews with several fashion heavyweights, including Anna Wintour and Isaac Mizrahi, and they are all rapturous about their talented, eccentric friend. Roberts also spends time photographing the shoes themselves, yet there is little context about why they are so valuable and singular. The transition between craft and name recognition is invisible: By the halfway point, his customers clamor for his shoes because of his name, and not the quality his name represents.
This is Michael Roberts’ first film, and he shows none of the probing curiosity that most documentarians have in their bones. In fact, parts of the film have a strange, borderline amoral quality. Blahnik discusses how he avoided Paris’ social upheaval in the late ’60s, citing his hatred of crowds. This is accepted on its face, and hardly mentioned again. As the film continues, Blahnik’s reasoning sounds like a convenient excuse since his persona—sophisticated, worldly, excitable—seems borne out of willful ignorance.
At one point, someone comments that fashion designers, like all artists, must be sensitive observers of the world, since their work must reflect what they see. If this is the case, then Blahnik is arguably a failed artist. He seemingly never leaves his immaculately decorated bubble, unless he is on a factory floor where everyone adores him. At one point, the film discusses Blahnik’s kinship with John Galliano. They gloss over how Galliano once announced his love for Hitler, referring to this episode as “losing everything.” A better film would ask how Blahnik stood by his friend/collaborator, or not. Instead, Roberts is too excited to film the two designers in the same shot.
The best parts of The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards offer hints into the depth of Blahnik’s influences. Based on Roberts’ lopsided view, Blahnik is great because he somehow stands outside the popular fashions of the period. There is an interesting interview with the director of Madrid’s Prado museum, and she notes how Blahnik is clearly enamored by the feet in countless Goyas. In his mind, Blahnik is in the same league as the world’s great painters, and the disparate influences seem to confirm that.
There’s also a section where the film discusses early 20th century Africa as an influence, and the subsequent recreations of this milieu are awkwardly staged. The stain of European colonialism seemingly never occurs to Roberts or Blahnik, since the patterns and colors are justification enough.
It is admittedly unfair to expect all fashion designers to be sensitive, compassionate world citizens who take the controversies of the day into account as they make their designs. Blahnik’s desire to create is compulsive, and there are moments where ideas seem to burst out of him. At the same time, The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards is so adoringly created, so utterly absent of anything resembling an investigative thought, that the film’s shoddy construction creates an opportunity for unfair demands. If Roberts’ craft equalled Blahnik’s, this could have a splashy, smart documentary that is about creativity, as well as a celebration of it. Instead, this is a hagiography with way too many quips, bright colors, and fawning interviews.
Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.