Woman in Charge’ Review A Fashion Revolutionary Framed by a Straightforward Documentary : ‘Diane von Furstenberg

Tribeca's opening night gala, coming to Hulu on June 25, explores an icon through a scrap-book aesthetic

Published Time: 08.06.2024 - 13:31:20 Modified Time: 08.06.2024 - 13:31:20

Tribeca's opening night gala, coming to Hulu on June 25, explores an icon through a scrap-book aesthetic.

“Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” makes the case for artistic simplicity, for better or worse. The story of an iconic 20th-century fashionista, it takes the form of a traditional talking-head documentary while exploring its eponymous subject: the Belgian designer and princess best known for bringing the wrap dress to prominence in the early 1970s. However, the distinction between von Furstenberg’s sleek, form-fitting design and the movie’s run-of-the-mill aesthetic is that while both approaches are in wider conversation with their respective art forms, von Fustenberg’s (re)invention went against society’s grain in its reclamation of femininity, while the visual approach from directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton remains shackled to age-old ideas of what a documentary ought to be.

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The film is often informative, but makes for a passively entertaining watch despite the sheer of breadth of life von Furstenberg has lived. She speaks, softly but with conviction, about the value of every kind of experience she’s had, and how grateful she is for having aged — a simple notion that feels practically punk when it comes to how Hollywood’s cameras tend to treat older women. In this regard, Obaid-Chinoy and Dalton meet her on her wavelength, and refuse to avert their gaze from her wrinkled complexion; they make the 77-year-old grandmother look as gorgeous and radiant as she feels.

However, as von Fustenberg narrates her story, from her mother’s survival at Auschwitz, to her various marriages and flings, a sense of narrative lethargy sets in, thanks to the movie’s standardized MO. It’s quick to employ old photographs, which shimmy into frame backed by colorful designs until the screen resembles a fashion magazine — or a DIY scrapbook cut up from the glossy pages of one — but this ends up being a one-size-fits-all approach, no matter the lightness or seriousness of the topic at hand.

Obaid-Chinoy and Dalton have each proven successful at telling documentary stories (with films like “Song of Lahore” and “Election Years” respectively), but “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” ends up more concerned with the concept of womanhood that von Furstenberg broadly represents, one preserved in amber, rather th -

an embodying the progressive spirit with which she moved (and continues to move) through the world. Her wrap-dress, for instance, bucked the notion that women ought to conform to men’s besuited ideas of workplace professionalism, and forged a new visage of success. When she speaks, and espouses her philosophies on living life, she radiates a sense of liberation. Meanwhile, the film feels too constricting for her aura, and too comfortable in its outdated approach to capturing personal history.

It settles, quite quickly, into a rote rhythm of interviews with friends, family members, fashion experts and the occasional celebrity, like Oprah Winfrey or Hillary Clinton, who have little connection to von Furstenberg, but show up because they boast their own cultural cachet as women in the media spotlight. These chats are broken up by the aforementioned quivering pictures and vivid graphic design assets, which can’t help but feel chintzy for a tale of someone so glamorous.

As a whole, “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” is certainly educational, as it allows von Furstenberg and those closest to her the chance to illuminate parts of her personal history that may not be widely known (for instance, the complex dynamic of being the child of a Holocaust survivor marrying into German aristocracy). There are also hints of other women’s stories to be found, from those who shaped von Furstenberg to those she shaped in return. But while this bigger picture emerges, its details are slowly subsumed by an edit that zips forward far too quickly, without capturing von Furstenberg’s lingering doubts and regrets.

The result, though it attempts to be multifaceted, is almost hagiographic in its telling. It would feel entirely oversimplified were it not for the fact that von Furstenberg herself is so dynamic and alluring an interview subject that her presence alone is a worthwhile.

‘Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge’ Review: A Fashion Revolutionary Framed by a Straightforward Documentary

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (opener), Jun. 6, 2024. Running time: 98 MIN.

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