Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS
Director Michael Roberts’ MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS may begin with Marilyn Monroe’s quote (which also graces the poster) about the link between the right pair of shoes and a woman’s confidence, but the documentary actually has more of a connection with THE RED SHOES than anything. While it does boost our self-assurance, a beautiful shoe created by a talented cobbler will beckon to its rightful owner like a siren song. It will possess their soul and consume their mind. Shoe designer extraordinaire Manolo Blahnik is well-practiced in the art of enchantment, becoming a household name thanks to decades of fashion catwalks and celebrity endorsements. Only now does the humble artist get a loving tribute wrapped in a slick promotional package. However, it only scratches the surface whilst getting to the heart of the genius.
Roberts’ film opens on a juxtaposition of sorts; an endearing, albeit ever-so-slightly annoyed Blahnik complaining as the Sugar Plum Fairy suite plays as a backdrop. One can tell instantly that this man has probably been labeled “difficult” at some point in his life. In fact, that’s what we learn over the course of the next eighty-eight or so minutes. His work is compared to Baudelaire’s by Andre Leon Talley. His shoes make feet happy, proclaims Isaac Mizrahi. His art is all Anna Wintour will even think about putting on her feet. Blahnik’s name is synonymous with glamour and style, and he’s perhaps the greatest shoemaker of the 21st Century. But it may surprise you that he’s uncomfortable with the limelight and fame. He prefers solitude, not for dramatic Greta Garbo-esque purposes, but for the clarity of mind needed to stoke such imaginative creations, or “creatures,” as he calls his designs.
This portrait of a dedicated master craftsman works best when it allows small moments to shine through. The real treasure isn’t necessarily the gobs of shoe porn on display. Even though those second unit shots play like ad campaigns for Blahnik’s shoe collection, what’s best are the anecdotal discoveries. The germaphobe confesses he’s revolted at the thought of people eating potato chips. He claims he’s allergic. His eccentricity is magnificent. Randomly as they reminisce, he and fashion designer John Galliano fall into song as easily as they do substantial conversations about fashion history. Listening him tell a reporter he was most impressed by an ordinary “woman of a certain age” – not a celebrity – wearing his shoes is deeply heartening.
Roberts splits his focus on a truncated version of Blahnik’s biography with an ode to his influences, which range from artist/ “the king of shoes” Goya, to photographer Cecil Beaton, to the film BLONDE VENUS, to nature itself. He even makes time to include Blahnik’s modern muses like model Karlie Kloss and pop star Rihanna, with whom he designed a hugely popular collection. The film also takes time to include his influence on the entertainment landscape, seen through films like MARIE ANTOINETTE and TV shows like SEX AND THE CITY. We see him in his Italian factory crafting a shoe sample as other workers fulfill customer orders for their handmade shoes.
Nevertheless, not all of the ingredients work sufficiently. The dramatic re-enactments distract, rather than augment, but do add a more cinematic feel to the piece. An in-depth portrait isn’t exactly in the cards. Roberts leaves lots of territory unearthed in what can essentially qualify as a pristine advertisement for the brand. Although Blahnik mentions that one of his shoe sketches wouldn’t be commercial, we don’t learn more from the affable designer about where art and commerce intersect. What drives him beyond outside influence? Why doesn’t he have any romantic relationships? It’s broached, as his shoes reflect cheeky allusions to fetishism, but it’s quickly dropped. Is he worried about his craft disappearing with conglomerates hawking cheaper product? How have customers’ needs changed over time? Does this film hold something back? It feels that way, at times. Whenever things become too personal, on the whole, Roberts switches gears instead of bearing down.
Listen, if you’re a fan of fashion documentaries like VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR, THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE and MADEMOISELLE C, then this is necessary viewing. But just know you may not be getting the entire picture.
MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS opens in limited release on September 15. For where to catch it playing near you, go here.