The September Issue, R. J. Cutler's tasty account of how the 9/07 edition of Vogue came together, takes as a given that the glossy is the style bible and editor Anna Wintour the fashion pope.
These likewise were the assumptions of The Devil Wears Prada, a fictionalized version of Vogue and the pontiff nicknamed "Nuclear Wintour" for her frosty demeanor.
Yet from Cutler's vantage as the fly on the Fendi fur eavesdropping on editorial meetings, the September issue is not the product of an authoritarian regime. It is closer to push-pull between the pope and a powerful cardinal, Grace Coddington, the magazine's creative director.
In this compulsively entertaining documentary, the women are collaborative combatants.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, in floral sheath and cardigan, the helmet-bobbed Wintour. In the other, in Boho black, the flowing-maned Coddington. And when they lock horns, they say to the camera what they are too vexed to say to each other. In other words, The September Issue has more affinity with The Office than with Project: Runway.
A fiction filmmaker couldn't invent more colorful antagonists than the hard-bodied Sphinx behind the oversize sunglasses and crossed arms and the Rubensian redhead open with her arms and her feelings.
Wintour is opaque, not only carrying a designer purse but seeming to wear one on her eternally pinched lips. Coddington is transparent - you can read her dreams on her expressively furrowed forehead.
To the credit of Cutler, producer of The War Room, about the inner workings of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, both women are fascinating, sympathetic figures, the businesswoman and the artist.
As sour needs sweet to create a third, more intense flavor, each needs the other in order to deliver the doorstop that is Vogue. (In the long-ago and far-away time of September 2007, the economy was in a boom cycle and Vogue hit an all-time high of 840 pages.)
Wintour is the businesswoman juggling advertisers, designers, and consumer needs. "I don't see any evening on that rack," the gimlet-eyed editrix tells Yves St. Laurent as she surveys his fall line. First, the king of the Rive Gauche shrivels before the pope of Seventh Avenue. Then he acknowledges - out of deference? honesty? - that she has a point.
If for Wintour fashion is raw material to be packaged and marketed, for Coddington it is the stuff of fantasy and transformation. The redhead, a onetime model, produces the dreamy pictorials (sometimes erotic, sometimes playful - sometimes both) that whet consumer desire. (It was originally Wintour's concept to make movie stars, rather than models, Vogue cover girls and messengers of style.)
What emerges over the course of this documentary is that the combination of Wintour's businesslike briskness and Coddington's poetic reveries is alchemical. To spin 800 pages of paper into fashion gold, to persuade women that desire is a necessity, requires the combination of one's pragmatism and the other's fantasy.