It’s impossible not to compare Mademoiselle C, Fabien Constant’s documentary on Carine Roitfeld’s exit from her editor-in-chief post at French Vogue, to R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue. In fact, the former seems to be a response to the latter. Whereas Cutler’s doc is fueled by the anxieties that emanate from Anna Wintour’s tyrannical figure, and perhaps our hope that she’ll eventually crack a smile and out herself as human, Constant’s film runs on Roitfeld’s infectious congeniality and her unabashed willingness to be a muse. And while Cutler captured just another busy September at Wintour’s Vogue offices, Constant follows Roitfeld at a moment of rupture and liberation. She’s just left the trappings of the Condé Nast empire to create her own magazine, hoping to reinvent fashion and herself. Not because there’s anything wrong with the haute-couture establishment (she’s besties with Donatella and Lagerfeld), or with her life (she has an intellectual French husband, a gorgeously pregnant daughter, and a son who’s an artist), but out of sheer bourgeois ennui.
The September Issue serves us exactly what we expect, as Wintour plays the unapproachable coldness of her character up to cartoonish Queen Elizabethian levels. Since most people in America aren’t as familiar with Roitfeld, it’s due to her charisma and director Constant’s funky and frenetic pacing that Mademoiselle C feels neither like a corporate hagiography nor like mere fashionista masturbation material. The aesthetics of the diva that it gives us is always attached to her relatable insecurities. She’s at once infantile and star-like, a gutsy business woman and an affectionate mother. Roitfeld’s attempts at philosophizing about what fashion means are kept to a minimum (she’s more Teresa Giudice than Diane Vreeland), while Constant highlights her unapologetic, and unfiltered, passion for luxury without necessarily judging her for, say, having been fed pressed caviar for breakfast as a child or claiming that revolutionaries can have money too.
Mademoiselle C also offers some surprising pleasures, such as watching Karl Lagerfeld pushing a newborn baby in a stroller. “She’s cute, but she doesn’t talk much,” he says. While Wintour’s standoffish stance may disseminate cut-throat competitiveness and annihilate emotion from the office, Roitfeld’s warmth and modesty (she confesses to, most of the time, not really having a specific idea) seem to turn even the coldest Germans into amicable creatures. And yet, she’s no goody-goody, as she embraces the aesthetics of porn chic, nudity at cemeteries for the sake of art, casually pronounces words like “pussy,” and has no problem with her own son calling her a MILF. The film also portrays the art of the fashion photo shoot more as a ludic affair than a business endeavor. Shooting fashion the Roitfeld way isn’t the clinically produced soulless war of egos of Wintour’s world, but a playful and improvised creative experience.