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At the movies, the fashion world is having a moment. This month alone, fashionistas will have their choice of Saint Laurent, a biopic of the legendary designer; Iris, the late documentarian Albert Maysles’ loving portrait of an eccentric Manhattan fashion icon; and Dior and I, director Frédéric Tcheng’s third nonfiction fashion film, following profiles of fashion editor Diana Vreeland and designer Valentino Garavani. Perhaps Tcheng deserves some credit for creating the trend, but Dior and I fails to justify it. A shapeless sketch of high fashion in the modern era, it peers through the window of its subject but never lets us inside.
The film is set at a crucial time in Christian Dior’s history. In 2012, the legendary fashion house hired as its creative director Raf Simons, a young designer with lots of buzz but little experience in haute couture (mercifully, the film explains what this is: top-quality, bespoke garments that require hand-stitching). With only eight weeks to design and produce the spring line, Simons must juggle lofty worldwide expectations, his own inexperience in high fashion, and a significant language barrier—he doesn’t speak French. It is a frantic two months, and it feels like it: In search of a comprehensive but coherent portrait that never quite emerges, Tcheng zips between Simons, the good-natured ateliers (the workers who actually make the clothes), and archival footage of Dior.
The biggest problem is Simons himself. Generally, a film’s protagonist must be either likable or interesting, and Simons is neither. A classic diva, he is cold and distant with his employees, leaving his good-natured assistant Pieter Mulier, whose innate goodness shines through even with scant screen time, to build bridges and keep everyone working hard. Logically, it’s easy to see how stress plays a role in Simons’s generally unpleasant temperament, but Tcheng makes no effort to understand him, instead presenting him only as a spoiled genius whose artistic contributions come nowhere close to justifying his childish behavior.
The ateliers are by far the most winning characters onscreen, and we don’t spend nearly enough time with them. Some have been with Dior for decades, and they accept the high-stress nature of their jobs with good cheer and humility. They work for the love of fashion, not the accolades, and their reward is low-key: While Simons basks in the glory of the film’s climactic fashion show, they watch with glee from backstage. They are the working-class heroes of the story, and a deeper look at their lives would have made Dior and I a far richer film.
Despite these crucial missteps, there are moments when Dior and I breaks free from its aimless narrative and finds the beauty it seeks. As the title suggests, Dior is a character in this story, too. His reputation looms over Simons like a specter, and when the film embraces this idea, it soars. The lyrical sequences of filmed footage of the label’s creator being projected onto white dresses in a dark room show his ghostly presence to be a source of both inspiration and terror. In the end, Simons overcomes these challenges; his line is a hit, but as a character in the film, his petty sensibility shrinks in the presence of Dior’s ghost, and the film, as a result, seems more like a cheap knockoff than a true original.
Dior and I opens May 1 at E Street Cinema.