'Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards': Film Review

Courtesy of Music Box Films
Manolo Blahnik in 'Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards'
Frustratingly fawning.

The first feature-length film by longtime fashion editor Michael Roberts is a portrait of his friend Manolo Blahnik, the renowned luxury shoe designer.

An affectionate and sometimes vibrantly imaginative biographical sketch, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards could have used more shoes and fewer people. (It has just the right quotient of lizards.) The usual assortment of high-fashion talking heads offer their recollections and tributes, with only a few comments rising memorably above the effusive but vague encomium. But when director Michael Roberts zeroes in on his subject's handcrafted footwear — shoes that Blahnik calls "creatures" and his admirers breathlessly call "Manolos" — the case for Manolo Blahnik's unparalleled artistry comes into focus.

Not a single word is uttered about the price tags for those creations. But then again, if you've gotta ask, you'll never afford them, at least not easily. Roberts, an illustrator and editor whose resume includes masthead stints at a number of major magazines, has made a film that operates almost entirely within the haute couture bubble, where there's no room for such gauche details as retail price. Unfortunately, that reticence toward nitty-gritties extends to the potentially illuminating subjects of career-building and craftsmanship.

The latter is touched upon in the film's strongest sequences. In one, a white-gloved Blahnik draws a new design — a moment clearly staged for the camera, but no less real for what it captures about the artist's attention to detail and his delight in the creative process. In another scene, all too brief and arriving strangely late in the proceedings, the master visits one of his Italian factories, where he's still a hands-on participant, building the lasts for his elegantly outre shoes and sometimes helping to carve their famous heels.

Even with his patrician theatricality, Blahnik emerges as quippy and likably unpretentious, someone who'd rather be in the factory or his garden (or the Four Seasons in Milan) than on the red carpet. He's charmingly evasive, using humor to keep the conversation on the buoyant surface. When designer John Galliano surprises him for an onscreen convo, Blahnik's shrieks of glee express not just how happy he is to see his friend, but also his relief at not having to be alone before the camera.

With assists from archival material and a few stylized re-enactments, Roberts lays out the basics of the 74-year-old designer's life story, which began in a kind of paradise, both pampered and wild, in Spain's Canary Islands. That's where, as a child, he turned the foil wrappers from Cadbury chocolates into shoes for reptiles. It wasn't until years later, though, in New York, that Diana Vreeland (played, in campy homage, by the Turkish designer Rifat Ozbek) assessed the young man's portfolio of drawings and concluded that he should "do shoes."

Blahnik recalls that the models could barely walk in his first collection. How he overcame his shoe-construction ignorance remains a glossed-over mystery, as are the steps that led to the opening of his first shop, in Swinging London, where scenesters in vintage footage include Julie Christie, David Hockney and Bianca Jagger. The world of glamour was the natural habitat for the avowedly apolitical Blahnik, who had fled Geneva and the U.N. career his parents had envisioned for him. He was in Paris during the student protests of '68 but utterly uninterested. (His friend Paloma Picasso participated in the demonstrations, but she admits to being "overdressed.")

Among the more than two dozen interviewees, Anna Wintour offers the most incisively measured commentary and Andre Leon Talley, who compares Blahnik to Baudelaire, the most passionate. Some, like Anjelica Huston and Sofia Coppola, are heard but not seen. The former recalls how peevish Blahnik was as her modeling partner for a Vogue shoot, and Coppola offers a few remarks about his contributions to the Oscar-winning costume design for her film Marie Antoinette. Fashionistas — including Blahnik's new muse, Rihanna — predominate, but there are also a couple of outliers. Manuela Mena, a curator at the Prado, and the scholar Mary Beard put his shoes in a cultural/historical context, with nods to Goya and Greek antiquities.

Which is all fine and dandy, but it would have been far more compelling if Roberts had drawn out the designer on particular shoes and his aesthetic choices. The director does, though, give viewers a chance to study the combinations of sumptuous materials and singular silhouettes by placing the "creatures" in natural settings. Lensed in romantic close-up by cinematographer Nicola Daley, these still-life arrangements showcase the extraordinary subtlety and richness of the artist's palette.

Roberts makes his own bold aesthetic choices, particularly with a film-within-a-film nightclub scene whose point is unclear but which looks great. To more engaging effect, he uses whimsical cutout-style animation, mainly during the opening and closing credits.

His and his interviewees' deep regard for Blahnik couldn't be clearer, but the lovefest grows repetitive and tiring in the somewhat haphazardly organized film. Opportunities to dig a bit deeper come and go. A scene from Sex and the City that helped to put Blahnik's name on the pop-culture map is included in the doc; how he felt about it remains unexplored. As frustrating as The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards can be, though, it makes quite clear that the man behind a revered international brand is an artist first and foremost. For his ardent admirers, that will probably be a perfect fit.

Distributor: Music Box Films
Production companies: Nevision, Heels on Fire
With: Anna Wintour, Andre Leon Talley, Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Rupert Everett, Isaac Mizrahi, Penelope Tree, John Galliano, David Bailey, Mary Beard, Manuela Mena, 
Karlie Kloss, Anjelica Huston, Sofia Coppola
Director: Michael Roberts
Screenwriter: Michael Roberts
Producers: Neil Zeiger, Gillian Mosely, Bronwyn Cosgrave
Executive producers: James Cabourne, Anne Morrison, Tiggy Maconochie, Ralph Shandilya
Director of photography: Nicola Daley
Editors: Arturo Calvete, Richard Guard
Composers: Brian Bennett, Warren Bennett

89 minutes