Photograph courtesy of the George Platt Lynes Estate

Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary Love Cecil directs a searching gaze at Cecil Beaton, the Oscar-winning set and costume designer, writer and photographer. Beaton almost single-handedly captured the zeitgeist of London’s Bright Young Things in the 1920s. With an eye for opulence, he went on to chart fashion, art and celebrity culture in a career that spanned 50 years.

Vreeland avoids the trap of nostalgia. She doesn’t wax lyrical about Beaton, but equally doesn’t ape his frank, sometimes inflammatory personality – rather, what Love, Cecil reveals is a picture of an artist with an almost self-destructive compulsion towards understanding and taxonomizing beauty, an obsession matched by a phobia of the ordinary that drove him to be unfailingly prolific.

Photograph from a Private Collection

Beaton’s photographic gaze is woven through the film – a gaze marked by intimacy with his subjects. It was this tangible closeness that allowed Beaton to render icons like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe with a gentle softness, as well as revel in all their steely star power. His reputation for immense flexibility in celebrity portraiture was well earned, matched, or maybe stretched, by his simultaneous and rigorous career as a costume designer for period films. Love, Cecil evokes this multidisciplinary restlessness, which at times, Vreeland seems to venture, reached an almost hysterical pitch for the photographer. 

In 100 minutes, the film combines photographs and archival video footage with excerpts from Beaton’s diaries read by Rupert Everett. The entries are both acrid and amusing. They betray the suspicions Beaton held towards the glimmering starlets he caught on camera, but more importantly, they reveal the doubts he had of himself, resulting in a beautiful and candid depiction of a master.

Love, Cecil will be screened in UK cinemas from 1 December.

Words by Jan-Peter Westad