For a documentary so intent on arguing that fashion designer Manolo Blahnik is really just a cobbler in love with his craft and uninterested in fame and fortune, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards certainly prefers to reiterate stereotypes about women and fashion. Michael Roberts’s documentary is an unabashed exercise in deifying its subject matter with superlatives and hyperbole from the mouths of talking heads, which ultimately results in the cheapening of the artist. A focus on Blahnik’s actual labor would have been much more pertinent than relying on Anna Wintour to spew out platitudes as if they were philosophical profundities.
Throughout the documentary, we hear from the crème de la crème of the fashion world, from André Leon Tally, who tells us that the Spanish-born Blahnik is a poet “up there with Baudelaire,” to Iman, for whom the famous shoe designer has become part of “every woman’s language.” Other cringe-inducing talking-head generalizations include something about girls’ blood pressure going up “when they see beautiful shoes” and a disturbing sequence featuring a drummer using his pumps as drumsticks and a blond woman dressed in a gorilla suit, which is meant to represent how Blahnik is so fascinated by the exotic that he “recreates Africa in his hands.”
Michael Roberts’s film is an unabashed exercise in deifying its subject matter with superlatives and hyperbole.
Manolo may perhaps just be mirroring the designer’s self-avowed lack of interest in the political (he’s supposedly professional soul mates with John Galliano) and penchant for an almost mythic, if not campy, exaggeration. Blahnik, for whom Rihanna is the new Grace Kelly, consistently interrupts serious talk with self-deprecating witticisms. He’s invested in a purely aesthetic experience that could borrow from, say, hydrangea or Velázquez, but not May 1968, which we learn was mere entertainment for Blahnik. Although there’s a strange pleasure in watching an old-school rich gay man completely out of touch with reality go on and on about how the only relationship he’s in is with the Four Seasons in Milan, use expressions like “très très très long time ago,” and call someone’s feet, in horror, “peasants’ feet!,” the camera ends up accepting Blahnik’s personality with the same lack of curiosity that Paloma Picasso describes in Blahnik himself in regard to Paris’s liberation.
Roberts intersperses his interviews with loose reenactments of Blahnik’s memories as well as shots of his shoes in dreamlike environments. But these asides are often too brief, giving the impression that the film is only too content to move on to more gushing from famous figures. The shots of shoes simply standing in oneiric environments, specifically, deserved a longer, more experimental treatment so that they could do the talking. No amount of verbal praising could do justice to an artisan of Blahnik’s caliber. The brilliance, and the rigor, of the designer’s craft is all in the shoes, not in his bubbly personality or enthusiastic descriptions—especially when those mostly amount to adjectives like “exceptional,” “original,” and “unique.”
It’s only in the short-lived moments when the film stops flattering Blahnik and washing over its every sequence with an incessant soundtrack that we get a sense of his genius: Blahnik at one of his factories, or sketching designs with pristine white gloves on. Although the man speaks a lot, he uses his humor as a shield to block the camera from revealing anything at all about himself. This clever act of self-disappearance, or self-neutering (we get a sense that Blahnik’s gayness, too, is merely aesthetic, not sexual), is completely accepted by a filmmaker who seems happy to simply have gotten access to an icon but is unable to realize—let alone explore—the icon’s do-or-die strategy.