House of Cardin
Credit: The Ebersole Hughes Company

Some fashion documentaries put a microscope to the work, like 2015's otherworldly Dior and I, exquisite in its detail. Others seek to capture the spirit of the industry's larger-than-life personalities, like 2011's Bill Cunningham New York, which could make even the most cynical viewer a believer in the joy of style. The greatest ones of all echo both the art and the soul of their subject, like 2018's devastating, savagely beautiful McQueen.

House of Cardin (out now in select theaters and on VOD) doesn't reach any of those heights, though the essential brilliance of its central figure does burst through in occasional glimmers. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes' documentary spotlights the legendary Pierre Cardin, who is now 98 and still hard at work ("Because it's the only reason to be happy in life," he dreamily tells the camera). The Italian-born French designer launched his career in 1945 in Paris, where he headed almost immediately after V-E Day, following the instructions of a psychic medium (really!) to his first job in fashion at the house of Paquin, where he helped work on the immortal costumes for Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête.

After working with Paquin, Schiaparelli, and Dior, Cardin launched his own house in 1950, where he would eventually mentor Jean-Paul Gaultier (who appears in the documentary along with Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick, and others). In the subsequent decades, his vision for fashion would contribute to transformations in the industry — he was ahead of his time in his use of nonwhite models, approach to menswear, adoption of ready-to-wear, designer-ification of eyewear, use of logos, and global view of the industry.

Varied though the film's talking heads are, they all agree that he is an eternally modern visionary. The work itself proves it: Shots inside his workshop and museum and archival footage of fashion shows sparkle with the promise of the future, even when they're half a century old. The designer himself, too, brings his story to life as he nears his own centennial with great energy and humor: "I was quite a good-looking young man, so everyone wanted to sleep with me," he says, laughing, of his days spent hanging out with Cocteau, Jean Marais, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Luchino Visconti.

It's hard to fault the film for being overwhelmed by its subject when even just the first year of his career is already so vivid and touched by world and film history — and overwhelmed it is. The movie works best when it keeps its focus on Cardin's history in and approach to fashion, the first of many worlds he entered, but becomes muddled as it examines his work in furniture design, his trans-industrial branding (before anyone even called it that!), his arts patronage, and his personal life. The doc moves not chronologically — except for when it does? — but in disjointed sections about his various endeavors, which doesn't do well to link them in a coherent likeness of an extraordinary person.

For a film about someone with such a profound understanding of the inherent connectedness of all things — art and commerce, the past and the future, Paris and Beijing and New York and outer space — House of Cardin's struggle to thread together the various elements of his life and career is all the more conspicuous. It's a monumental task, to be sure; his career has spanned decades, art forms, and continents. But it ultimately proves too unwieldy a subject for Ebersole and Hughes to essentialize in under 100 minutes.

The film opens with old footage of the designer enigmatically referring to himself as "an element" and a few of the doc's other speakers asking, "Who is Pierre Cardin?" House of Cardin doesn't manage to provide a good answer — but does enough to prove that it's a question worth asking. B-

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