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Film Review – The First Monday in May

3 min read

The First Monday in May chronicles the eight-month creative process involved in staging the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s hugely popular 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass. The exhibition is the result of an occasionally contentious collaboration between the Met’s Department of Asian Art and Costume Institute, and features Chinese inspired and influenced fashion from Western designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. Director Andrew Rossi also spends some time at Vogue with Anna Wintour and a small army of terrified looking interns as they make preparations for the 2015 Met Gala that marks the opening of the exhibition.

As with his 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, Rossi’s intention here appears to be revealing the inner workings of an eminent cultural and commercial institution. Regrettably, Rossi proves easily distracted by the glitz and glamour of the Met Ball, and The First Monday in May ends up spending more time with the delightfully withering Wintour than it does showing the audience how the Metropolitan Museum of Art functions from the inside. In Rossi’s defence, Wintour is a fantastic character and some of the film’s best and funniest moments involve her caustic comments and blunt dismissals of underlings, colleagues and collaborators alike.

first monday in may

The film’s ostensible lead is Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton, and the buoyant, boyishly dressed Brit is a compelling character in his own right. China: Through the Looking Glass is Bolton’s attempt to outdo the success of his 2011 exhibition Savage Beauty, which celebrated the work of Alexander McQueen. Bolton’s willingness to court controversy and engage with potentially thorny topics like Orientalism and colonialism is admirable, and a greater exploration of these issues would have added depth to The First Monday in May. As it is, we do get one brief but fascinating scene where director Wong Kar-wai and Bolton discuss whether or not to place garments and iconography associated with Chairman Mao in the same space as statues of the Buddha, but the discussion is quickly abandoned so we can get back to watching Rihanna rehearse for her Met Gala performance.

A significant amount of time is also devoted to the question of whether or not fashion is art. Fashion luminaries like Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano are insightful on the subject, but it would have been interesting to hear from some of the museum researchers and curators we see hovering in the background as the exhibition is installed. Whatever your opinion, it’s hard to deny the emotional and expressive power of clothing when Rossi patiently and lovingly tilts his camera up the length of a breathtaking, cheongsam-inspired Christian Dior gown or lingers on the magnificent canary-yellow cape-dress designed by Guo Pei and worn by Rihanna to the Met Gala.

The First Monday in May suffers from its director’s wandering attention, but the film is well worth seeing just for the opportunity to gaze upon some truly remarkable and enthrallingly beautiful clothing.