Director Matthew Miele focuses on fashionistas in portrait of famed New York department store
A documentary so loving and unquestioning of its subject that it could play on permanent loop in the shoe department, “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” is an unabashed valentine to one of Manhattan’s preeminent temples of commerce.
If pretty clothes, elaborate window displays and air-kiss interviews from some of the biggest fashionistas on the planet are your idea of a good time, “Bergdorf’s” offers 90 minutes of couture bliss. Those less enraptured by the world of expensive clothes and the people who make, sell and purchase them will find themselves feeling like Anne Hathaway‘s character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” wondering why there’s so much fuss over all this frippery.
Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman took us into every nook and cranny of Neiman-Marcus’ flagship Dallas location in 1983’s “The Store” while very subtly making points about consumerism and greed, but there’s nothing even remotely critical on the agenda at “Bergdorf’s.” Or historical, for that matter – it takes director Matthew Miele half an hour to even show us a timeline of the store’s rich heritage in New York.
Instead, that first 30 minutes offers a who’s-who of designers – Giorgio Armani, Michael Kors, Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Fürstenberg, Christian Louboutin, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Proenza Schouler, Isaac Mizrahi, the duos behind Rodarte and Marchesa, to name but a few – gushing about how much they love the store, and how it’s every designer’s dream to have their wares sold there, and how the insanely expensive merchandise offers aspirational dreams to young career girls. We get the point after the first three or so fashion superstars, but the movie makes it over and over again, for no other apparent reason than to show off who they could get on camera.
It’s also apparent that all these style celebrities participated because the store asked them to; in turn, the store asked them to because it was clear to them that Miele wasn’t going to do anything that would keep “Bergdorf’s” from being a 90-minute advertisement. Granted, not every documentary is necessarily required to dig up dirt and say awful things, but the overbearing gush gets tiresome.
Miele has ample opportunity to use the store’s history to explore other topics, but no one seems interested in pursuing them. There’s brief discussion about the hit that retail took during the 2008 financial crash, but it’s dismissed quickly. (It’s a century-old business; surely there’s an anecdote or two about how Bergdorf Goodman survived the Great Depression?)
The film also touches on the boutique’s place in pop culture history, citing its presence in an early Barbra Streisand TV special and in the original “Arthur,” although the legendary merch-destroying brawl between Ali McGraw and Alan King in Sidney Lumet’s “Just Tell Me What You Want” goes strangely unmentioned.
Not that “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” (which gets its title from a New Yorker cartoon) doesn’t offer pleasures beyond the vicarious examination of the trappings of wealth. The store’s staff contains any number of interesting, eccentric figures, from fashion director Linda Fargo, who comes off as Anna Wintour with a functioning soul, and no-nonsense personal shopper Betty Halbreich, famous for her unfiltered opinions and blunt assessments of clients and their choice of clothes.
We’re also offered a glimpse into the extraordinarily complicated and intricate window displays, and these moments spent with the people behind the scenes of Bergdorf’s are fare more interesting than what the famous couturiers have to say. But in this documentary, as in most high-end boutiques, the label names get all the floor space.