Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s: Film Review

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's Poster - P 2013

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's Poster - P 2013

The exuberance wears thin in a documentary that’s more longform marketing instrument than occasion for true discovery.

Matthew Miele’s documentary is a paean to Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman as the epicenter of luxury retail.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s takes its title from one of Victoria Roberts’ ladies-who-lunch cartoons for the New Yorker, and the air of indulgence and privilege informs almost every celebratory frame. The latest entry in the fashion documentary subgenre, the film by Matthew Miele is an unabashed valentine to a singular Manhattan specialty store. Propelled by enthusiastic reviews, the entertaining but ultimately disappointing doc will entice the fashion-forward and fashion-curious when it opens in limited release.

This is probably not the best moment to flaunt affluence and excess. Then again, Downton Abbey is a hit. And as producer Jean Doumanian, one of the film’s cavalcade of Bergdorf worshippers, observes, the luster of high-quality, expensive goodies is a key motivator in the capitalist American dream.

The street scene that opens the film, with its nods to working-class New York, is a feint. A film that really looks at the inner mechanics of a major retail establishment could be engrossing, but Miele is more interested in the sales-floor fabulous than the nuts and bolts. He breezes through the basics of the family enterprise’s history, offering little about the people who built the store. In the process, intriguing tidbits nonetheless emerge, notably the Goodmans’ longtime occupancy of a penthouse apartment above the store, which itself occupies the former site of the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion.

Unlike Bergdorf’s merchandisers, Miele goes for quantity over quality, collecting talking-head sound bites from more than a hundred interviewees, all gushing — designers, journalists and a whole slew of famous shoppers. Amid all the repetition, some observations are incisive. But comments by the likes of Susan Lucci and the Olsen twins add nothing to the mosaic other than name value.

The film’s three main characters are high-level Bergdorf employees: fashion director Linda Fargo; personal shopper to the rich and famous Betty Halbreich, all but stealing the show with her withering looks and dry remarks; and David Hoey, who oversees the store’s elaborately set-designed windows, with their hallucinatory fantasy scenes. Providing the closest thing to a narrative thread are the preparations for the store’s famed holiday windows, with engaging glimpses behind the scenes and visits to the artists’ studio where the many of the props are created, bead by bead and stitch by stitch. (A fascinating aside notes L. Frank Baum’s role in the history of window design.)

Miele does also captures a young designer’s pitch to Fargo. The designer happens to be the daughter of Tommy Hilfiger, but lineage aside, there’s an unpredictable quality to the sequence that’s missing from much of the film.

Unlike in-the-moment fashion docs such as Unzipped or The September Issue, or the revelatory biography Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, Miele’s film is itself a pitch, a kind of marketing spiel for a beloved tastemaker emporium. Divided into snappy chapters (“The Designers,” “The Building,” “The Windows”), Scatter My Ashes is kinetic and frustratingly fawning.

Opens: Friday, May 3 (Entertainment One)

Production companies: A Quixotic Endeavors presentation in association with Berney Films

With:Giorgio Armani, Candice Bergen, Manolo Blahnik, Dolce & Gabanna, Marc Jacobs, Naeem Khan, Michael Kors, Karl Lagerfeld, Lauren Bush Lauren, Susan Lucci, Christian Louboutin, Catherine Malandrino, Gilles Mendel, Isaac Mizrahi, Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen, Thakoon Panichgul, Joan Rivers, Jason Wu.

Director: Matthew Miele

Producer: Mallory Andrews

Executive producers: Andrew Malloy, Steve McCarthy, Iris E. Wagner, Chris Walker

Director of photography: Justin Bare

Music: Parov Stelar

Co-producers: Serge Nivelle, Barbara Ragghianti

Editor: Justin Bare

MPAA rating: PG-13, 94 min.