If you shop regularly at Neiman-Marcus, or if that’s your aspirational dream, have I got a movie for you!
Actually, calling Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s a “movie” would be misleading, much less labeling it a “documentary.” The title is inspired by a cartoon by Victoria Roberts that appeared in a 1990 issue of The New Yorker, and suggests the reverence felt by grateful designers, satisfied customers, and happy employees toward the luxury department store, considered a Manhattan institution as much for its landmark Fifth Avenue building (next to the Plaza Hotel and near the southeastern edge of Central Park) and intricately-designed window displays as for its high-fashion clothing and rarefied clientele. (The store was sold to Neiman-Marcus in 1972, but operates independently.)
A parade of designers line up to pay obeisance to the store; over and over they relate how the store “made” their careers, lining their pockets with gold and certifying them as having reached the pinnacle of the fashion world. A few brave souls — “Not at Bergdorf’s,” as titles helpfully explain — also appear, expressing their hope that one day they, too, will be considered worthy of a place in the store. Until then, darn it, they will soldier on in relative obscurity.
Perhaps writer /director Michael Miele was not able to find any designers who were willing to speak on camera in a critical manner about the store, nor any industry experts, journalists, historians, customers, or even former sales people. Whatever the reasons or intent, pretty much everything about the store is presented in a highly positive, advertorial manner.
Still, even a puff piece needs compelling narrative storytelling and/or an abundance of fascinating anecdotes to justify a running time of 93 minutes. The only structure, of a kind, is provided by the five window displays designed by a longtime employee, praised for his taste and artistic vision. We don’t get any particular insight from him, or context as to his background and influences (other than “everything”); we just follow him as he shops for items and visits the artists whose work will be incorporated into the windows.
Otherwise, it’s a rambling assemblage, occasionally tossing in snippets from a historical timeline of the store and business, but mostly relying upon fawning interview footage in which the subjects are interchangeably appreciative of the opportunities that have been afforded them. Of the anecdotal material related by employees, it’s similarly respectful and dry, save for a longtime ace personal shopper, a woman who displays a saucy attitude but is wary of being too specific to an interviewer about anything she’s ever done or said.
Bergdorf’s personifies the adage, ‘If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it,’ and so everyone is reticent about discussing specific figures in the luxury business. (We do learn, however, that some sales people, or “personal shoppers,” can earn $500,000 to $1 million annually, which prompts one satisfied customer to consider changing professions, jokingly.)
Those who can afford high-priced luxury goods — shoes that cost thousands of dollars and the like — and those who benefit financially from the wealthy customers make no apologies, instead glorifying the materialistic lifestyle. One person goes so far as to claim that Bergdorf’s is “necessary,” indicating that it’s needed so that young people will be inspired to be “aspirational,” by which it’s strongly suggested that the only way people are motivated is by holding out luxury items as carrots for them to chase after.
Hey, if you’ve got the money, it’s your choice how you spend it, but the glossy justifications quickly become wearisome for those of us who have never dreamed that happiness can be bought in a department store.
Without much context provided, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s is akin to a very large issue of a fashion magazine. Fashion devotees will linger over every image; everyone else will rifle through it and then toss it aside without a second thought.
Review originally published in slight different at Twitch. Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s opens on Friday, May 17 at Angelika Film Center – Dallas. Visit the official Facebook page for more information.