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'First Monday in May' is a fly-on-the-wall dream for fashion fans

For anyone who's ever wondered if fashion is art, just sit down and watch The First Monday in May. 

You'll come away with a definitive answer.

The documentary gives viewers inside access to the Met Gala, the most exclusive event in the fashion world. It brings together celebrities of all kinds, from actors to singers to athletes, pairing them up with the industry's elite. And everything — everything — is meticulously approved by Vogue editor Anna Wintour. 

However, Wintour isn't really the film's star. That would be Andrew Bolton, the Met's Costume Institute curator and visionary behind each year's exhibit. 

Ever since 2011's explosively successful Savage Beauty exhibition, based on the work of Alexander McQueen, Bolton's been faced with a new dilemma — how will he top it? 

Everything he's done since then has been compared to the McQueen exhibit. So in the film, he's placing all his bets on the new show, titled China: Through the Looking Glass. It's bigger, more ambitious and potentially more controversial than anything he's done before. 

And so begins the film's journey. 

Director Andrew Rossi paints a beautiful, intriguing portrait of the wild event, as well as the months and months of planning that go into it. His access to the Met and Vogue's many meetings is an ideal fly-on-the-wall scenario. We get to see the difficulty of placing just the right celebrity at just the right table; wrangling wildly expensive budgets; Wintour and her Vogue cohorts snipping and gossiping about you-know-who and you-know-what. 

The film also, importantly, doesn't shy away from the controversy that plagued this particular Met ball. Many were concerned that the subject — Chinese fashion and art — would lead to a racist, exploitative exhibit that focused on the West's interpretation of the culture rather than the culture itself.

Rossi presents both sides equally, showing both the criticism and Bolton's determination — even if the film doesn't always paint the latter in the most flattering light. 

For example, there’s an incredibly important scene where a Chinese reporter is interviewing Wintour and Bolton, asking them all the tough questions a conscious viewer would have. Couldn’t this potentially misrepresent Asian culture and turn it into a falsified fantasy? Doesn't it concentrate too strongly on the past? Wintour and Bolton tackle these sorts of questions throughout the course of creating the exhibit; viewers get to see how they do. 

There’s also a cringeworthy scene in which Bolton considers putting Mao Zedong artwork among Buddhist sculptures. Chinese director Wong Kar Wai, the exhibition's artistic director, immediately shakes his head. But that doesn’t perturb Bolton, who seems to care more about his vision — and potentially stirring up controversy — than hearing him out.

Isn’t controversy good, Bolton posits? Not like this, Wai responds. 

There are lots of moments like this, concerns and red flags raised.

But the documentary doesn’t aim to push you in either direction. It just paints the scene, balancing both the criticism and Bolton's intense point of view. The decision, ultimately, is up to you. 

What the documentary does drive home is that fashion is art. And it does that thanks to a handful of rather lovely philosophical interviews with editors and designers and artists alike.

Like The September Issue before it, The First Monday in May also paints a fascinating portrayal of Wintour in her professional life. She’s demanding and visionary, an editor so powerful that she can close down the entire North wing of the Met during visiting hours.

The people can come back to visit next week, she smirks. And so it shall be. 

All that narrative is balanced with sumptuous footage of the Met Gala itself, particularly its famous red carpet. It also takes us through the looking glass, showing what happens once the glitterati step off the carpet and into the museum. There’s Rihanna and Kim and Kanye. Clooney and Hathaway. Kendall and Gigi. Versace and Rousteing and Lagerfeld. 

It's dreamy and unfiltered access to one of the most glamorous events in the world. Why wouldn't you want to watch it? 

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