‘Love, Cecil’ paints aesthetics of Cecil Beaton’s life, confuses storyline

Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Cut to an interview between a talk show host and Cecil Beaton. The host asks Beaton whether he’s a photographer, a painter or “a dandy.” Beaton shrugs.

For Beaton, it never mattered how he was categorized — he was more obsessed with the aesthetics of the world around him and, particularly, how he could transform them. Beaton illustrated for Vogue magazine, photographed World War II soldiers and made the elegant, extravagant costumes for various movies, including “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady.”

“Love, Cecil,” a documentary about Beaton, reflects upon his obsession with aesthetics. Throughout the film, director Lisa Immordino Vreeland adeptly acknowledges and centers the volume of work that the artist produced throughout his life. All the more, Immordino Vreeland romantically explores Beaton’s private life — specifically his sexual orientation — and how he navigated his relationships as an artist.

The documentary succeeds in capturing the beholder’s eye, exhibiting itself as the very beauty that Beaton believed in. It is, in essence, an artistic representation of Beaton’s photographs. At times, the overt overuse of the Ken Burns effect — which involves the camera moving across or zooming out of a still image — appears amateurish. Yet it’s this technique that allows Beaton’s best-known work to be on full display.

Throughout the piece, the viewers stroll through Beaton’s oeuvre, using various effects to add movement to his photographs and costume designs. Original black-and-white photographs are juxtaposed with cropped versions of themselves, now shaded a different color. This added dimension transforms Beaton’s photographs into scenes rather than still images.

Immordino Vreeland’s documentary highlights the odd beauty within Cecil’s photographs. To show a portrait that Beaton took of his two sisters, the screen is split in two, presenting copies of the same picture twice over. The striking effect is a screen with two pairs of nearly identical women, all dressed extravagantly by Beaton, who stare right into the camera and at the viewer. The cinematic choice amplifies the disconcerting aims of Beaton’s original photograph.

When it comes to overall composition, however, the documentary weaves throughout the artist’s life without a clear storyline. The result is overwhelming, as the movie broadly focuses on Beaton’s conceptions of beauty, which varied widely themselves. The documentary touches on various themes that encompassed Beaton’s life, which end up confusing the structure of the piece. Despite the volume of content, the discussion of Beaton’s love life is anything but forgetful, as it ties back into his refusal to be categorized. The experts in the movie discuss Beaton’s sexuality and mindset toward his love life.

Beaton’s first professed love was Peter Watson, a man who was his muse and who later broke his heart. The documentary later highlights Beaton’s passion for and love affair with actress Greta Garbo, whom he extensively photographed and featured in Vogue magazine.  

While narration of Beaton’s diary shows that the artist contemplated his own sexuality, “Love, Cecil” makes the point that this label never mattered to him. Beaton’s diary and photographs are simply about those whom he loved and how they made him feel.

In the end, the documentary’s viewer is less curious about Beaton’s sexuality and more about his work. While the film may lack a defining storyline and dramatic elements, it magnificently presents the various photographs that correlate with relevant time stamps in his life. And though his photographs are prominently featured, Beaton’s magazine spreads, costume designs and self-portraits are also showcased. This further underscores the spectrum of Beaton as an artist, allowing the audience to paint a complete picture of him as such.

Immordino Vreeland supplements these pieces with a good variety of narration, both from third-person experts and from a reading of Beaton’s diary. The viewer can understand Beaton through a museum curator’s eye, a model’s experience, an actor’s costume and Beaton’s own voice from prerecorded interviews.

So, who was Cecil Beaton? At the end of “Love, Cecil,” the audience is well-equipped to answer that question. Though rambly at times, the documentary artistically weaves through the artist’s life and work, accentuating his curiosity for the world that survives him.

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected].