‘High & Low’ Director Kevin Macdonald on Making a Documentary About John Galliano, Cancel Culture and Forgiveness

John Galliano loomed large over the world of fashion throughout the 1990s and early aughts. As the creative director of Givenchy and Dior, Galliano was widely admired for his bold, barrier-pushing style and his sensual, elegant designs. But Galliano’s career imploded after videos emerged of him in 2010 and 2011 speaking admiringly of Adolf Hitler and launching into an antisemitic and racist diatribe, shocking the patrons of a Parisian cafe. It was, in retrospect, an early example of “cancel culture,” one that makes Galliano’s rise and fall instructive in light of the similar public reckonings that many Hollywood figures have faced in recent years.

Kevin Macdonald’s fascinating new documentary, “High & Low — John Galliano,” uses the fallen fashion icon to examine the limits of forgiveness, as well as the possibility of redemption. Galliano, who was heavily intoxicated when he made his comments, is sober now and says he’s worked to try to understand why he did what he did. He certainly seems like a broken man, lacking the swagger he exhibited from his days as the enfant terrible of haute couture. Viewers, however, may not be convinced that Galliano has done enough to realize the root cause of his outburst or that he’s sufficiently repentent. Macdonald, who talked about the hot-button film on the eve of its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday, fully expects “High & Low” to provoke heated debate.

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“I want my audience to draw their own conclusions,” Macdonald says. “I want to present the evidence as found and allow people to question and discuss it.”

What drew you to John Galliano’s story? Were you interested in fashion?

I’m definitely not a fashionable person. I’m interested in fashion insofar as it’s a closed world, which is always fascinating to try to understand as an outsider. I’m trying to comprehend why people spend so much time and money on and are as obsessed by fashion as they are? I was interested in John as a character. This film is both a character portrait and a moral inquiry.

What intrigued you about John Galliano as a character?

For those in the know of fashion, and I am not one of those people, he’s considered to be maybe the greatest designer of the last 30 years. He was a genius. And yet in 2010 and 2011 these multiple incidents happened at La Perle Bar and he was effectively cancelled. That term didn’t really exist then, but he was an early incidence of somebody who was caught on video saying or doing something that they shouldn’t have. I was interested in why that had happened? Did he really hold those beliefs that he espoused and if he didn’t, why did he say those things? Then there was the psychological mystery of what makes somebody do something like that? And the moral question of can you and should you forgive somebody who is a great artist? Can you ever become untarnished from an event like that? It’s a very open-ended inquiry.

Do you know why he wanted to participate in this film?

People get involved in documentaries usually because they think they are going to gain from it in some way. There’s some narcissism, some vanity. That’s inevitable. In his case, it’s obvious that he wants to try to have his side of the story out there. My job is to be as objective as possible and not to give him an easy ride. With him, I was so amazed by how hands off he was. I had final cut, which I always have on my documentaries. He watched a number of cuts to give comments on factual inaccuracies. His factual inaccuracies were all to do with that dress was not a haute couture dress it was a prêt-à-porter. He respected me enough to let me make the film I wanted to make it, which I think is brave for someone who has reason to be self-protecting.

What did he think of the finished film?

It’s hard to know. He really lives for his art. He doesn’t have much of a moral sense. He told me he feels it’s accurate, but he didn’t make any comments about how he came across or if he liked it.

Watching the movie you see him experience these great bursts of excitement around pushing boundaries and the act of creative expression, but there’s also this kind of exhaustion that begins to creep in as the demands on him to produce more and more collections grows. You are an artist. Did you relate to that?

We use clips in the film of “The Red Shoes,” which is about living for art. For those dancers, life and art are one and the same. There’s also often this conflict between commerce and art. That’s a preoccupation for a lot of filmmakers like me, certainly. John was crushed by the expectations of the business, but he also was an artist who wanted to take on more and more and assume greater and greater control. In the end, it’s not possible for any one individual to live with the kind of pressure that he was expected to live with.

Did you get a sense of why he had this strain of antisemitism in him? What conclusions did you draw about the incidents?

None of us can ever really get inside of somebody else’s head to understand why they did that or would say something like that. If I was pushed to have an opinion, and I would have to be pushed, I think there was a huge amount of self destruction in him at that time. Maybe he did feel that this was the worst possible thing he could say and it would stop the merry go round that he was on. He knew he was going to die if he didn’t stop. That would be my interpretation. But other people have different opinions. I never found any evidence of deep rooted antisemitism. I don’t think anyone around him felt there was a political bone in John’s body. It’s not like he was reading Mein Kampf of anything. That then raises a whole range of other questions about why antisemitism is the thing that someone would reach for in that situation? It’s a complex psychological situation.

How sincere were his efforts to understand what was behind his comments? How hard did he try to make amends to all the people that he offended and hurt with his remarks?

It took him awhile to make amends. Sidney Toledano, the former CEO of Dior who you see in the film and who is Jewish, said it took him seven years to come and apologize to him. But since 2011, he’s done a lot of therapy. He has tried to apologize to people. He certainly has tried.

Well, in the film, Philippe Virgitti, one of the people he made  anti-Semitic and racist comments to, says he didn’t apologize to him?

That’s a difference of memory between the two of them, which is itself interesting. John says he said sorry to him. He apologized to him. He looked him in the eye. And Philippe, who was the victim of this outburst, denies that John ever properly apologized. You only have to look at Philippe to see that this incident really damaged him and he’s still living with the consequences, which is tragic.

After he watched the film, did you get a sense that John was surprised by Philippe’s comments. I mean, if I had done something that offended someone deeply and I watched them express their genuine, lingering hurt, I would question how effective my efforts to atone for my behavior had been?

The only comment that he made about it when he watched Philippe’s interview was ‘Gosh, I feel really terrible for him. How awful. It must have been really difficult for him.’

All this leads to a larger question about whether it is possible to separate the art from the artists? How should we handle problematic geniuses and their work?

We’d have to have a much larger conversation about that. I don’t want to get into big generalizations about this topic, but it so depends on the circumstances. It depends on what the offense is — whether it’s a crime or just inappropriate behavior. For people from different eras, I often feel that we should understand that the past is a different country and they had different values then. We shouldn’t necessarily condemn people for things that were considered to be acceptable at the time. But I also feel that if someone has truly committed a crime or hurt other people then we should take that into account when we look at their art. One thing I am certain of is we shouldn’t condemn without trying to understand first.

What are the limits of forgiveness? Can people redeem themselves? 

Early on when I spoke to John, he talked about getting in touch with this rabbi after everything happened. So I phoned him and told him I was thinking of making a documentary about John Galliano, and I thought he might say, ‘oh God, I don’t want anything to do with that.’ Instead, he said, ‘that’s a really good idea because we need to discuss forgiveness and as a Jew, I feel if I can’t forgive somebody, what is the point of my religion? I have to believe somebody who has done me wrong, can apologize or make amends.’ That attitude struck me. We have to, as a culture, ask these questions and find ways to allow people to be forgiven.

But does that forgiveness extend to allowing someone like John Galliano to resume their position or influence or power?

Again, it depends on the individual circumstances and what was done. In the case of John, he is forever marked by this. It’s going to be the first or second line in his obituary. There is no getting away from that and he knows that. He said to me, ‘I’m not doing the film, because I want to be forgiven. I’m doing the film to be a little more understood.’

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