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The BoF Podcast | Kevin Macdonald Probes John Galliano’s Soul

The award-winning director of ‘High & Low: John Galliano’ tells Tim Blanks why the designer doesn’t expect forgiveness but would love a little understanding.
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For almost 30 years, Kevin Macdonald has been making award-winning documentaries and dramas on such a broad spectrum of subjects — from Bob Marley and Whitney Houston to the dictator Idi Amin and a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay — that it’s no wonder he occasionally ponders the common thread. Maybe it’s people placed in extreme situations by nature or nurture. He agrees that’s the case with the artists he’s documented. “All good artists are obsessed. If they’re not obsessed, they’re not interesting,” he says. “I also think what they have in common is that they are often morally complex and have an element about them that the audience has to make its own mind up about and that people have different opinions on.”

That is most definitely the case with Macdonald’s latest documentary. “High & Low: John Galliano” follows the designer’s ascent to the summit of haute couture at Christian Dior, his fall from grace following his drunken anti-Semitic outbursts in a Paris bar, and his subsequent efforts to make amends. Macdonald considers Galliano one of a kind, “a brilliant artist who had this experience of cancellation because he said some really offensive and horrible things 12 years ago.” But it was only during the pandemic, when the phenomenon of cancellation took hold in his world — the film world — that he really began thinking about the story.

Macdonald acknowledges that the artist’s rise and fall — when addiction or arrogance or bad judgment turns triumph into a hard luck story — is so familiar a template that it borders on the cliché. And Galliano might have been another Whitney Houston, except for one key difference. “There’s a fourth act… an inconvenient fourth act where he didn’t die,” Macdonald clarifies drolly. “He survived… and had to try and figure out, ‘What did I do? Why did I do it?’”


That fourth act also includes Galliano’s astonishing return to peak creative form with his Artisanal show for Maison Margiela three weeks ago. Macdonald insists this coda wouldn’t have made any difference to his film, but he did wonder if the documentary played a small part in the designer’s late-stage renaissance. “Through having spent so long talking to me and working on the film, thinking about his past, maybe it’s put him into a place where he’s able to move forward without reference to the past. To remember his self, his real self.”

Of course, Galliano’s past is celebrated in “High & Low.” A good half of the film is devoted to the frenzy of creativity, the ravishing craft, the grand cinematic sweep of the shows he staged throughout the Nineties and Noughties. “Fashion is a very different thing now than it was 20 years ago when John was in his pomp,” says Macdonald. “And it’s nice to be reminded of what it was, and that maybe fashion is less vivacious, dangerous, inspired now than it was then. A little bit of that blood has been drained from it.”

There seem to be many such reminders floating around at the moment: riveting fashion docs like “Kingdom of Dreams,” streaming series about Dior, Balenciaga and Chanel. “I think people are realising that there’s this incredible world that hasn’t been explored in film… people are just catching on to the fact in the wider world that fashion is so psychologically fascinating, that it can be the origin of really great stories and can tell us a lot about the wider society we live in.”

“High & Low” does all of that. As Macdonald says, “You’re seeing an artist at work and that involves all sorts of errors and moral failings and passion and moments of genius and discovery and inspiration… it feels alive.” But the film is inevitably disturbing as well. Anyone who is familiar with the extent of Galliano’s disgrace will undoubtedly be curious as to how Macdonald deals with an idea as profound as redemption. “I’m not doing the film to be forgiven,” Galliano told him. “I’m doing the film to be a little more understood.” He wants to show the work he has done on himself.

But with events in the Middle East intensifying anti-Semitism — and Islamophobia — around the world, “High & Low” arrives at a particularly charged moment. Its distributor is worried no one will want to see it. Macdonald argues they should want to see it even more. “Because this is a film about the origins in our minds of anti-Semitism. What is it to be anti-Semitic as opposed to saying something stupid? And can education change somebody? Can they be forgiven for saying and doing terrible things?”

“This is not a film that is going to give easy closure,” Macdonald adds. “It is going to raise a lot of questions and I think it demands a certain amount of independent thinking from the viewer.”

“High & Low: John Galliano” opens in cinemas on 8 March 2024.

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About the author
Tim Blanks
Tim Blanks

Tim Blanks is Editor-at-Large at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and covers designers, fashion weeks and fashion’s creative class.

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