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At 'Vogue,' A Wintour And Some Discontent

"In fashion, September is January," explains an underling in The September Issue, unconsciously encapsulating the flakiness of a world as detached from reality as Bjork's closet. And though most will visit R.J. Cutler's subtle, supple documentary hoping to peek beneath the formidable bangs of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, they will be disappointed: This is a movie whose ambitions range wider than the contents of her guarded psyche.

Fluidly shot by Robert Richman, The September Issue focuses on the creation of the 840 pages produced for Vogue's September 2007 offering — the largest single issue of a magazine ever to hit the streets (and the pocketbooks of the well-heeled). Seemingly granted an all-access pass to editorial meetings, model fittings, photo shoots and fashion shows, Cutler follows quietly in Wintour's wake, recording without comment the unequivocal decisions and hurt feelings she leaves behind. (The devil may wear Prada, but the fashion bible's cover, in a scandalous departure from tradition, now wears celebrities; Wintour's decision to marry new-money fame to old-money couture may have narrowed the void between fantasy and function — and, not incidentally, reinvigorated sales — but it has also increased the friction between herself and the various artists under her command.)

But a life dedicated to selling outrageously expensive clothing to averagely compensated women demands a personality programmed to repress, and the portrait that emerges is that of a brilliant and influential woman whose mind is as masked as her runway-show presence. We see no partner, no home life, no friends and no indication of her beliefs or worldview. Whenever a flicker of emotion disturbs her glacial surface, it's quickly contained: a flash of defensiveness when comparing her work to that of her siblings (a political editor at The Guardian, a low-income housing advocate, a labor organizer), and a fleeting sadness when her daughter, Bee, announces a preference for legal briefs over the designer variety.

If Wintour's prodigious self-control were the primary emotion on view, The September Issue would quickly alienate all but the most Ungaro-obsessed. But Cutler — and his movie — are clearly more drawn to the magazine's senior creative director, Grace Coddington, whose gorgeous layouts are continually getting bumped in favor of the celebrity du jour.

With her halo of flaming, untamed hair, her mobile features and her comfortable clothing, the former model (she was photographed by Snowdon in 1959) is a real human being in a sea of expressionless, immaculate drones. Candid, congenial and wryly comic, Coddington is completely secure in a talent that makes ugly clothes beautiful and idiotic clothes accessible. And because she sees no need to defend her career choice or deny the ridiculousness of the industry she serves, we warm to her: She's as essential to the film as her artistry is to the magazine.

More meditative than confrontational, The September Issue has a dreamy fascination that Cutler doesn't disrupt with manufactured conflict. Guest appearances by designers, established and struggling alike, speak to Wintour's staggering commercial foresight: When she lands a lucrative Target contract for the young Thai-American designer Thakoon Panichgul, the fashion industry's deference to her passions seems both startling and understandable.

Less understandable, if not less startling, is the director's decision to film his subject with an unusual number of upward angles, cruelly emphasizing the loosening jawline beneath that immaculate bob. If he's seeking vulnerability, careful viewers of the movie will know he doesn't have to try so hard.

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Jeannette Catsoulis
A Scottish expat who believes that most problems can be solved by a single malt and a Swedish masseur, Jeannette Catsoulis found her film-writing career kick-started when an arts editor discovered she was the only person at his dinner table who knew who Ed Wood was.