As always, an interviewer with a craftily posed question:
“What is a self-confessed fashion anarchist doing in bourgeois Paris, anyway?”
A moment of contemplation as then-freshly initiated fashion designer Vivienne Westwood sits in curling smoke.
“You have to go where you have to go. You have to do what you have to do. I certainly don’t want to be underground; I want to be at the place of the most focus that I can find.”
In “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” Westwood is one unwavering display of rebellion. Director Lorna Tucker’s debut feature film is an earnest attempt to capture the young art student turned Sex Pistols costume designer turned international high-fashion auteur turned political activist into words and pictures.
If you’re Westwood, the mission to retell the entire story is completely tedious, and this is how Tucker opens up her documentary: with the storyteller, Westwood, slightly distressed, sitting in an upholstered armchair in the turquoise blue corner of what is only assumed to be a turquoise blue room, reluctant to tell her own story, to dwell on the limpness of her past for the sake of entertaining sound bites.
Westwood’s armchair curmudgeonliness is fitting for a woman who founded the ‘70s punk movement. The idea of “unmanning the establishment” is timeless among the youth generation. Westwood found subversion in spiked hair and in the grotesque imagery of a swastika, inverted crucifix and the word “Destroy” printed on her famous Sex Pistols T-shirt that now sits in a sterile archive. Westwood has maintained all the youthful energy of a hip grandmother, one who might not keep up with the Kardashians or Instagram fame, but one who has used her artistic clairvoyance to stay plugged in with the youth beat.
Tucker goes through Westwood’s life in chronology and splits time into thirds of punk, icon and activist. The film highlights moments of innovation and rebellion in Westwood’s life, places where Westwood has stood on the front line of anti-everything, and counters these moments with places where Westwood realizes that “we weren’t attacking the establishment; we were just part of the distraction.”
Westwood’s career as a high-fashion designer for her label Vivienne Westwood is an example of what some might consider a young punk selling out to enter an elite world of catwalks and fashion weeks, of commercialism, materialism and capitalism.
However, the mission never changes. Westwood claims that “I can’t trust the people in this world — I’ve got to found out for myself,” and she carries herself with a Joan of Arc strength that is insurgent to even the most insurgent tropes of a punk kid. Her will to find things out seems to be a driving factor in her constant evolution and desire for movement and growth. This underlines the film’s narrative, from her early years as a punk to her current exhaustive work as an activist.
Despite Tucker’s efforts, Westwood’s full persona is still largely ungrasped. Choppiness in Tucker’s directing is almost inevitable with Westwood’s subversive personality and serpentine career. The film’s score is off-mood at points, including a section of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” concerto that has become the signature opening sequence in “Chef’s Table.” Attempts to capture what Westwood’s adoring husband Andreas Kronthaler calls “Vivienne, the person” have fallen short in Tucker’s mission to get all of Westwood’s self-proclaimed “boring” facts down.
But for those unfamiliar with Westwood’s work, Tucker’s film is an amuse-bouche of an introduction. Westwood herself is very active on Instagram and features herself in short videos on climate change, capitalistic greed she calls “rot dollar” and ceaselessly provocative runway.
And perhaps an unsatisfying account of her life is the best way to mass-market Westwood’s life in 80 minutes. If Westwood can be pushed into any stereotype, it’s the one that ordains her an artist and a free spirit who has followed her craft with gritty resolve and maniacal unpredictability. To tame her energy, even for the sake of documentation, would not only be insincere but also impossible.