They say that when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you. Looking into the gigantic expensive sunglasses of Vogue editor Anna Wintour must be kind of like staring into that abyss. Except that you never think to yourself, "I wonder if the abyss thinks I look fat in these jeans."
R.J. Cutler's immensely entertaining documentary "The September Issue" goes inside Wintour's empire and her day-to-day life, as we watch her coolly wield her sizable power and influence in room after room. She doesn't rant, she doesn't gush, and she doesn't hesitate; she just sits and judges, and the fashion world trembles (in delight or in fear) at her judgments. She doesn't seem mean, necessarily, but when you're talking about how someone looks, it can't help but feel personal.
Cutler is best known for political documentaries like "The War Room" and "A Perfect Candidate," and he takes Wintour's world seriously. Fashion isn't a frothy, lightweight pastime, but a global industry that has a powerful effect on how people see themselves. But it's also, in many ways, an art form, and the movie is attuned to the clash between art and commerce that gets played out on the pages of Vogue every month.
The film follows the creation of the September 2007 issue of Vogue, at over 800 pages the largest single issue of any magazine ever issued. The pressure is intense on the many editors, photographers, designers and models featured in the issue to put their absolute best foot forward. There's plenty of Fashion Week eye candy in the film, including fashion shoots in Rome and runway shows in Paris, but underneath it all is the basic drama of talented people trying to achieve the seemingly impossible.
The movie finds Wintour's counterweight in Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, not as much a household name as Wintour, but an absolute genius whose vision gives Vogue much of its distinctive character. Where Wintour is aloof and mysterious, Coddington is like a passionate, forthright artist in the Vogue offices, willing to openly love her work and be wounded when Wintour doesn't share her enthusiasm.
Their battles over the light table in the editing room - and the obvious respect, if not affection, that they share - provide the movie with much of its narrative juice, as we wonder who will prevail on this decision or that as the magazine's deadline approaches. The answer is Wintour, usually, although the movie ends with one rare win by Coddington that, in a clever way, involves Cutler's own film crew.
But beyond the battles in front of them, what "The September Issue" offers in Wintour and Coddington is two definitions of what it means to be successful. Wintour has all the power, wealth and influence she can possibly desire in life, but to survive at that level has to somehow stand at a remove from it, unknowable.
Coddington, on the other hand, isn't as famous or as wealthy as Wintour, but she's a completely creative force, digging into her work with an unabashed joy. Personally, we might choose one as a more fulfilling life over the other, but it's clear that, begrudgingly, each needs the other to succeed.
THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE
Stars: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington
Rated: PG-13 for language
How long: 1:28
For fans of: "The Devil Wears Prada," "Valentino: The Last Emperor," dresses that cost more than my car