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“Love, Cecil” a deep dive into artist who attempted to sculpt extravagance

Image courtesy of Landmark Theatres and Zeitgeist Films

Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, “Love, Cecil” is a dive into famous British photographer and designer Cecil Beaton’s diaries. The diaries are incredibly personal, and reveal to us the artist’s suppressed emotions, reflections of his life, the mistakes he’s made, how his childhood formed him and his inspirations for the work that he did. But what makes this documentary more interesting is seeing Cecil’s constant attempts to become part of the elite, and rub shoulders with the most famous and powerful, and how he does it through art.

Growing up in Hampstead, England to an upper middle class family, Cecil learned to take photographs from his nanny’s Kodak. He resisted following in his dad’s footsteps in the timber business and did not enjoy academia, so he decided to move across the pond to the United States, where he would take photos for Vogue under Conde Nast Publications. He continued there for a few years until some anti-semitic writing in his artwork got him fired. This caused him to come back to the United Kingdom and work as a war photographer, showing images of destruction and terror to the world. This resuscitated his career and inspired him to become better in his work.

A continuing theme in this documentary is seeing Cecil more and more apprehensive in embracing his identity. He wanted to be larger than life, and the best way he could show it is through his designs and photography. When taking photos of figures like Queen Elizabeth II, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, as well as his notable costume designs in films like Gigi and My Fair Lady, Cecil always wanted to show people as more than the sum of their parts. He reveled in displaying beauty, majesty and extravagance, because he wanted the same for himself.

The film only briefly touches on Cecil’s quest for solidifying and bolstering his own identity, in which there are parallels to what he does in this film to our modern identities on social media. Cecil would often photograph himself more poised and assured, while also sporting a subdued, effortless, elegance for himself. This gave him confidence, and the ability to explore his own self and what he wants out of life. We are careful to construct the identity that we want revealed, filtered through the pictures we post, the captions we write, the posts we share and the things we retweet. Whether we know it or not, there is a separation between the way we display ourselves and who we actually are in life. It is interesting to see this dynamic at play with Cecil, especially through a physical environment prior to the advent of the internet and social media.

Although the subject matter is compelling, the documentary struggles as it attempts to wade through 76 years of life without really focusing on anything particular, and ends up being unengaging in parts.

The documentary bursts with color and some style, but it struggles balancing interviews with the narrations of his diaries. It also mentions his shortcomings without ever fleshing it out or confronting it fully. Although there are moments where the film maintains a graceful momentum, the film does feel like a slideshow in parts, with a near superficial structure that hinders some of the images on display.

Grade: B-

The film was released in an exclusive engagement at Landmark’s E Street Cinema July 27

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