“High and Low – John Galliano” Documentary Explores Genuis and Redemption

High and Low – John Galliano documentary

The High and Low – John Galliano documentary is more than just a film about the genius British couturier’s rise and fall (and rise again) or the dark side of the fashion world that pushed him over the edge or the addiction it fueled. It’s also about forgiveness and the possibility of redemption, even in the face of an unforgivable sin mixed with the phenomenon of cancel culture.

Directed by Academy-Award winner Kevin MacDonald, who won the Oscar for best documentary for One Day in September and whose other credits include Last King of Scotland and Marley, the film is a captivating study of Galliano’s ascent to creative director of Givenchy and Dior and eventual self-immolation. It’s an honest portrayal of a complex man with a complex story.

“I was interested in John as a character,” MacDonald said in a recent interview with Variety,  “This film is both a character portrait and a moral inquiry.”

“I think the nub of it is: does he believe he’s done something hurtful and horrible and racist?” MacDonald said to AnOther Magazine. “Yes, you can see that and see that he did. Do we know how deeply he felt those things? Whether he really felt antisemitic? Or [if it was] self-destruction? We will never know.”

The film also strips the fashion industry of its beautiful sheen, exposing the toll it exacts on those considered its most glorious – and how fast exaltation can lead to canceling.

Aptly titled High and Low, this John Galliano documentary opens by juxtaposing an exhausted Galliano at a show with a video of him (there are two – one in 2010 and another in 2011) drunk and angry, spewing racist and antisemitic insults at patrons of his favorite Parisian bar La Perle.

“I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed, and fucking dead,” he says in the video.

“It was a disgusting thing, foul thing that I did,” Galliano admits. “It was just horrific… I am not racist, but every day you learn that actually all of us are a bit.” This is a chastened Galliano, without make-up, hair pulled back with a hair claw and fastened with the ever-present hair band. He is no longer the fashion rock star sitting crowned on a gilded throne but a humbled man searching for understanding.

MacDonald underpins High and Low with clips of the 1927 silent French film Napoléon, directed by Abel Gance – a film that profoundly influenced Galliano – and The Red Shoes (1949) by Emeric Pressburger (Macdonald’s grandfather) and Michael Powell. Both films portray outsiders who push themselves to exhaustion and self-destruction, just like Galliano, a sacrificial lamb to his craft.

But what I found most salient about MacDonald’s John Galliano documentary is that he shines a light on the designer’s Spanish culture and how central and defining it was to his genius as a couturier and to the man he would become.

Juan Carlos Galliano-Gallien, which is Galliano’s real name, was born in Gibraltar to a Spanish mother and a Gibraltarian father. His family moved to south London when he was six, but the boy couldn’t escape a machista culture that refused to accept that he was different, that he was gay.

His father beat him, and his mother verbally abused him. “There was a good beating and expletives. Maricon, maricon,” he says in the film. “I knew I had to confess the thoughts I’d had, praying for my sins. Damnation, you know, rotting in hell.”

He would hide in the bathroom and apply his mother’s make-up to recreate the beautiful sirens he saw in the movies. His father would bang on the door, asking him when he was coming out. “Coming,” Galliano would say, and rapidly wash the make-up all off. 

“I did it in secret, as well,” he told MacDonald. “I wonder if there was a thrill of being caught. Then what would you have done, Juan Carlos? But I never did [get caught.].”

To escape the brutality meted out by his parents and in school and church, he hid inside his head.  “I started to create another life, and I lived here,” he says, pointing to his head. “And would create places and stories because it was nicer in my head. It was just nicer.”

Galliano says that fashion “seduced” him and was his escape from the reality of his early life. His stories developed into fashion fables, fantasies that he would later transform into beautiful designs and become the grist of his genius and career.

And what a career it would turn out to be.

It started with Les Incroyables, his 1984 graduation show from St. Martin’s School of Art, and based on his obsession with Gance’s movie, blew everyone away. The Black show – also known as the Schlumberger show – in Paris in 1994 established the couturier as one of the greats, his name said alongside such French designers as Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.

But fashion is a brutal master, a greedy corporate machine that demands to be fed. At the height of his career, Galliano designed more than 30 collections a year for Dior and his name brand. “I had to keep feeding this monster with this appetite,” he says in the film. The shows got bigger, and the attention got bigger – a recipe for disaster for a man who craved acceptance.

“I became obsessed,” he explains. “That amount of work is a colossal amount of work. But then you get to the end of every single show and boom, there is a huge void that you drop down.” So, the crash, in many ways, was inevitable. None of this excuses Galliano. But it may explain the man behind the arrogant, enfant terrible, and Icarus-like fall, or at least open a window to a part of him we hadn’t considered before.

Galliano has risen again after more than 10 years in semi-wilderness with his stunning 2024 collection for Maison Margiela, of which he is the creative director. But what he wants now is something more than the adoration he once craved.

“I’m not doing the film because I want to be forgiven,” John Galliano says near the end of the documentary, “I’m doing the film to be a little more understood.”

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