Matthew Miele’s documentary “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” feels like a retirement party. The extravagant Manhattan department store isn’t going anywhere, so those who can afford $6,000 jewel-encrusted pumps can take joy in that (in addition to having such a spectacular shoe budget). Yet, the film’s interview subjects, proclaiming accolade after adulation, echo the rosy cavalcade of tributes that accompany a death or departure.
And like many overlong remembrances, one begins to hope that each speech will be the last. While the film doesn’t lack for praise of Bergdorf Goodman, it feels short on details and history and utterly bereft of surprises.
The documentary boasts an impressive roster of names, including designers — Vera Wang, Giorgio Armani, Michael Kors and so many more — stylists, actors, personal shoppers, buyers and Joan Rivers. Most of these fashion titans turn out to be forgettable in their vaguely similar sentiments. Maybe Bergdorf’s means many things to many people. Some call it an aphrodisiac, while others compare it to an art gallery. It’s an emergency room for retail therapy, as well as a benchmark for aspiring designers. But in the end, it’s just one thing. Bergdorf’s is a fashion mecca, but the film doesn’t prove the store’s influence beyond designers and the small population of people who can afford to shop there.
The structure of the documentary feels disjointed. Although it’s broken into various parts, such as “The Windows” or “The Europeans,” elements from each section crop up in other segments, making the delineation pointless. More important, though, the movie lacks any tension. If there’s diva behavior from the designers or staff, it isn’t shown on-screen. If Herman Bergdorf or Edwin Goodman had to overcome major obstacles to get the store up and running, then it isn’t evidenced here. Even the Bernie Madoff scandal didn’t do too much damage. One employee relates how each salesperson lost maybe one or two regular customers “overnight,” which in the grand scheme of Madoff’s deplorable butterfly effect seems minimal.
In the absence of drama, Miele might have found a few stellar subjects and let them do the talking. There are a couple of contenders in the film. The most memorable characters are no-nonsense personal shopper Betty Halbreich and David Hoey, the man behind Bergdorf’s storied window displays. Halbreich has some great one-liners and wry looks, but she doesn’t get much screen time.
Hoey, meanwhile, loves his job, which shows in his exceptional creations from the 2011 holiday season, including a mother-of-pearl moose and animal figures covered in bright blue inlaid tiles. He makes a number of appearances over the course of the film, but his passion and talk of creating a tableau of “underwater showgirls” never feels like enough.
There are a few amusing anecdotes sprinkled throughout the film. Liz Taylor ordered hundreds of mink earmuffs one winter, and John Lennon purchased trunks of fur coats on Christmas Eve, helping the store reach its sales goals. But these tales merely reinforce the superficiality of a movie that seems content spotlighting excess.
One could easily argue that the buying decisions of discerning senior vice president Linda Fargo trickle down throughout the industry, making an impact on the sartorial identity of the mainstream shopper. Yet the film makes no such claims. Instead, Miele seems satisfied with generalized praise, which simultaneously gives Bergdorf Goodman both more and less than what it deserves.
PG-13. At West End Cinema. Contains a brief sexual reference. In English and Italian with subtitles. 93 minutes.