Cecil Beaton was among the most well-known British artists of the 20th century, earning great acclaim and influence as a photographer, costume designer and art director. He was equally respected and controversial, always marching to the beat of his own drum. In documentary “Love, Cecil,” Lisa Immordino Vreeland explores Beaton’s legendary work ethic and baroque style, even if it fails to live up to his iconoclasm.
Vreeland’s film traces Beaton’s life from its humble, middle class origins to its lavish end. His artistic career began with the Bright Young Things, a troupe of performers in 1920s Britain that experimented with gender concepts. Beaton went on to work for Vogue, and, after a falling out with the magazine over his use of an anti-semitic slur, he took pictures of the Blitzkrieg for the British government. His return to Vogue after World War II proved to be the height of his career, which would later evolve into a lucrative film and stage career that won him three Oscars in the costume design and production design categories (for 1958’s “Gigi” and 1964’s “My Fair Lady”).
Through her previous two films, 2011’s “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” and 2015’s “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” Vreeland has developed her own biographical documentary style, focusing on the lives of notable creative individuals. In the case of “Love, Cecil,” the backbone of her film is Beaton’s diary. It’s read in voiceover, often over still photographs from Beaton’s life and work. It provides enough fascinating information, but not enough to carry the burdens of a feature film. She supplements it with various archival clips, as well as interviews with members of the fashion world and Beaton’s associates. Still, the lack of crucial analysis proves to be Vreeland’s achilles heel that breaks “Love, Cecil.”
In documentary filmmaking, there is an enduring style of cinema verite, which presents the world as it was captured on film, leaving the burden of interpretation to the viewer. But this is not exactly an option with films that center on the deceased, since original footage cannot be shot, and “Love, Cecil” is no work of observational cinema. The present is for us to figure out, but the past is for us to reflect on, and Vreeland almost entirely fails to reflect on Beaton in any substantial way. There’s some thoughtful engagement with Beaton’s personal life, but Vreeland shows viewers nothing that truly prods.
Her strongest reflections are with Beaton’s homosexuality. She grapples with it through his own conflicted words and by revisiting the fraught love affairs of his life. Still, his sexuality could have been a larger part of the film, as it was among the most important and illuminating parts of his diary. The film fails entirely in regard to an analysis of class, however. The middle-class Beaton’s idolization of bourgeois values — informing his own perceptions of beauty and elegance — is a fertile ground for digging into his aesthetic and socioeconomic contradictions. These arise naturally from his status as a middle class boy obsessed with the western culture of wealth, along with the glamor that comes with it.
Instead, her film is merely a bland biography, one recounting a life in the first and third person without much attention to what’s going on around — or within — it. It’s a superficial portrait, one compelling in fits and starts, that is always in the shadow of its lofty subject. This is most evident in the film’s form, which borders on boring. It’s mostly composed of still images, which track along the screen slowly, and interviews shot in the most traditional of manners. It’s simple and functional, working within the structure of its story. But it’s a stark contrast to Beaton himself, a bombastic, one-of-a-kind visionary with a taste for the surreal and magnificent. He deserves a portrait as engaging as his work — a titanic mass of aesthetic challenges, leaving boundaries destroyed in its wake. Perhaps, Beaton’s passions would have been more suited to a narrative film, one that could revel in the exquisite images and costumes he spent his life creating.
Despite these disappointments, “Love, Cecil” still has some educational value. It’s an informative, if dry, biography of Beaton, and Vreeland is a skilled storyteller at her core, managing to parcel out chronological details with grace. But she’s lacking as an analyst and aesthete, and those things defined Beaton. “Love, Cecil,” is suitable for the classroom or someone interested in learning about Beaton, but not for anyone looking for more.