Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 bio-doc, Whitney, successfully solidified Whitney Houston’s legacy and debunked the negative portrayal of her during her public battle with drug addiction. However, Macdonald’s attempt to do the same for disgraced fashion designer John Galliano in High & Low proves to be a more challenging and unsatisfying endeavor.
High & Low: John Galliano offers a glimpse into Galliano’s achievements in couture, showcasing footage of his extravagant shows, particularly during his tenure as creative director at Dior. The film revels in the opulence and drama that turned him into a fashion rock star, providing a dose of fabulous wardrobe porn for fashion enthusiasts. However, if viewers are looking for a conclusive redemption story, they will be disappointed.
The film is primarily framed around Galliano’s infamous anti-Semitic and racist tirade that led to his legal troubles in France and derailed his career. While many argue that his two years in exile were a period of atonement, there is little in Galliano’s unsympathetic demeanor in the interviews to suggest genuine remorse. Macdonald is known for his precise approach to nonfiction filmmaking, but in High & Low, he seems to give Galliano enough rope to hang himself.
Throughout the documentary, Galliano emphasizes the shame he has had to live with and the immense pressure of producing multiple collections per year, which fueled his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He suggests that his hate-filled outbursts were a result of his mental state during that time. While burnout stories are common in the world of fashion, Galliano’s drunken pro-Hitler rhetoric goes beyond what can be attributed to creative pressure.
The film also sheds light on Galliano’s lesser-known anti-Asian slurs and their impact on the recipient, Philippe Virgitti. Virgitti reveals the lasting effects of Galliano’s abuse and disputes Galliano’s claim that he apologized in court. Macdonald leaves it up to interpretation whether Galliano is genuinely sorry for his behavior or if he simply regrets it.
High & Low does not aim to endorse Galliano, but rather contextualize the key incident and the fashion world’s response to it. The film presents endless forgiveness advocacy from friends and professional associates, while fashion figures like Anna Wintour champion Galliano’s artistic genius and his ability to create drama. The question posed is whether toxic bigotry should be overlooked for the sake of celebrity fashion.
One of the more thoughtful commentators in the film is Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor and writer, who acknowledges the possibility of a second chance while still finding Galliano’s actions unforgivable. However, the involvement of Condé Nast Entertainment as an associate producer raises questions about the filmmaker’s intentions.
Macdonald explores Galliano’s lack of knowledge and understanding of cultures he drew inspiration from in his designs. The film questions whether his cultural appropriation was artistic exploration or simply surface-level appreciation. Galliano’s missteps, such as his faux-Hasidic attire and the controversial Les Clochards collection, invite criticism of his lack of sensitivity.
The documentary also delves into the emotional distress caused by the death of Galliano’s close friend and right-hand man at Dior, Steven Robinson. This part of the film is particularly affecting, as it highlights the personal toll of Galliano’s actions.
When asked about the root of his anti-Semitic vitriol, Galliano offers little explanation, leaving others to speculate about the influence of his Andalusian Catholic family origins and his working-class South London upbringing. While the film presents various aspects of Galliano’s life, it fails to provide a clear understanding of the designer’s motivations and true character.
High & Low concludes with Galliano’s 2022 show for Maison Margiela, marking his second comeback. The show, titled Cinema Inferno, is filled with autobiographical elements and is staged beneath movie screens showing a melodramatic film. Galliano appears agitated and exhausted, suggesting that the demands of the fashion industry take a toll on him. However, this portrayal of martyrdom leaves a sour taste in the mouth, casting doubt on the sincerity of his redemption.
In the end, High & Low leaves viewers with a sense of unease. While Macdonald attempts to provide a nuanced perspective on Galliano’s downfall and potential redemption, the film falls short in offering a satisfying conclusion. The lack of genuine remorse and the questionable motivations behind Galliano’s forgiveness in the fashion world create a complex and uncomfortable viewing experience.