No doubt, the documentary “The First Monday in May” will draw comparisons to “The September Issue,” although done by different directors. Besides probably drawing some of the same audience, both feature fashion, Vogue magazine and its editor, Anna Wintour. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Where “The September Issue” ( R. J. Cutler) takes a journey into the creative process in putting out the famed, gigantic annual Vogue publication, “The Fist Monday in May” gives a behind the scene look into two of New York’s heralded cultural events: The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion exhibit, “China: Through The Looking Glass,” and The 2015 Met Gala, a star-studded fundraiser that celebrates the opening of this special exhibit. The latter seems like the making of fanciful and thrilling fare, but in actuality, that is not the case.
“The September Issue” surprisingly and wonderfully ended up with Vogue’s art director, Grace Coddington stealing the show while tensions mounted on several fronts leading to the publication’s fall release. This created an undeniable compelling and appealing film. Not exactly the dynamic duo, “The First Monday,” director Andrew Rossi focuses on the characters of Anna Wintour, long time chair of the Met gala who’s always been known for having a cool and controlled demeanor (is it her ever present cup of Starbuck’s coffee?), and Andrew Bolton, The Costume Institute’s affable, phlegmatic curator. Secondary characters include the many beautiful visuals in the form of haute couture gowns and alluring created spaces at the Met. All pleasing and easy to watch, but the film does not necessarily offer much in the way of tension and excitement leading up to the big events.
That being said, in going behind the scenes of the gala production, Rossi did obtain access where none others have before, and the story does present interesting issues, pertaining to fashion as art. Maybe even more significant an issue raised for the gala was the delicate balance of showcasing Eastern history and culture through Western sensibilities, without bumping into gawdy and offensive. To help navigate those delicate waters, filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (“In the Mood for Love,” “Chungking Express”) was enlisted as the gala’s artistic director. Thanks to him and others, life-sized decorative dragons were not installed at the gala entry way (a bit too heavy handed on the Eastern world reference), and Buddahs were not in the same room of the museum as photos of dictator Mao. Mr. Wong was quick to pointed out, that while that may be aesthetically appealing, it’s culturally inappropriate and historically inaccurate.
Did the exhibit pull off this delicate balance? Can or should fashion be seen as art? After viewing “The First Monday in May,” many will probably say yes, and the fact that the exhibit went on to be the most attended fashion exhibit in the history of The Costume Institute of the Met, might confirm that. Is The First Monday in May a compelling and noteworthy documentary? Maybe not so much in a general sense, but for those who love strolling along the intersection of fashion and art, it’s definitely worth checking out.