It’s hard knowing what to make of Kevin Macdonald’s High & Low: John Galliano. It concerns the controversial fashion designer, his unexpected rise (“the son of a plumber” from Gibraltar), his stratospheric success, his catastrophic fall. For those who may not know: Galliano became the creative director of Christian Dior SE in the mid-90s (Givenchy before that) and developed a style that was both celebrated and imitated by the industry at large. The man himself was regarded as a genius in his own time, and he worked himself (and his right-hand man Steven Robinson) to the bone. His runways were an event unto themselves. The word “revolutionary” was apparently used. Then, in 2011, Galliano’s career came to a screeching halt when he was caught on video at a Paris bar badgering fellow patrons with racist and antisemitic hate speech. He was swiftly fired from his position and arrested for the remarks.

The central voice of this documentary is Galliano himself. Macdonald gives him plenty time and space with which to defend, explain, and describe himself. There is a clear fascination here with celebrity and “cancellation,” or however you’d like the define that term. Can there be reconciliation? Can there be a professional reclamation, even after such horrible sentiments have been uttered? Does it matter that Galliano was in a blacked-out, drunken state at the vicious end of years of crippling drug addiction? Maybe! High & Low: John Galliano seems not to know.

In speaking with the subject himself, one of his victims (Philippe Virgitti), his family and friends (including Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Charlize Theron), and fashion critics (Hamish Bowles is a standout) among others, Macdonald is searching for some sort of clarity. What is the allotted time of punishment one must endure for acts such as this? One problem is that Galliano does not appear all that sorry about the whole thing. When pressed on the multiple incidents over the course of multiple nights in which he was hateful to such a degree that he was arrested and convicted for it, Galliano cannot recall details to any real degree. This is something the documentary underlines, making it clear that Macdonald is unsure himself about the legitimacy of Galliano’s professed remorse. One understands not remembering in the moment (given his state), but to have a blasé sense of it this many years later? C’mon, man.

This complexity of character is certainly interesting, but the film progressing to something of a redemptive finale plays a bit off-key. Yet perhaps this is intentional? Where else is the story supposed to go? If it feels artificial, perhaps that’s because Macdonald himself thinks it is. In a certain way there is something honest about Galliano not having much good reason for his hate speech. When pressed, he simply says “I don’t know.” He understands people want a clearer answer, but he earnestly can’t say where those words came from. There is some sort of bravery here.

Some of his fashion buds try their best to defend or explain it all. Naomi Campbell quite forcefully declares that what he said doesn’t matter because “that’s not him.” Theron is more nuanced in her take, refusing to defend his actions while acknowledging that people are complicated and it’s somewhat impossible to understand every facet of a person. Others describe him as “bruised.” Still others mention that Steven Robinson’s death-by-overdose only years before sent Galliano off the deep end a bit.

And all of this is intriguing to a degree. Ultimately, though, High & Low: John Galliano feels like half a movie––plenty of questions, no answers. It’s the beginning of an intriguing conversation and not much else.

High & Low: John Galliano opens on Friday, March 8.

Grade: C

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