A young Cecil Beaton appears in a triple-self-portrait from the late 1910s. (Zeitgeist Films/Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's)
Reporter

Rating: 2.5 stars

Watching “Love, Cecil,” an affectionate documentary portrait of the photographer, compulsive diarist and film and theater designer Cecil Beaton, it’s impossible not to wonder what this visual obsessive and unabashed narcissist could have done with a smartphone. The English artist and dandy — who broke into photography in the 1920s by documenting the theatrical antics of a group of bohemian London socialites known as the Bright Young Things — seems made for the age of the Instagram selfie.

Just as that observation was occurring to me during Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s thorough and pleasurable — if lightweight — film, up pops Hamish Bowles to make the very same point. Bowles, the international editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, is one of several talking heads who weigh in on Beaton, a figure who looms large in the landscape of 20th-century style. (Beaton won three Oscars: two for art design and costumes in 1964’s “My Fair Lady,” and one for costumes in 1958’s “Gigi.” He was also a regular photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and many of his portraits of movie stars and celebrities — including the British royal family — are iconic.)

Vreeland’s film, for the most part, is structured around spoken passages from Beaton’s voluminous diaries, which are read, expressively, by Rupert Everett. The actor ably channels the persona of the self-described “rabid aesthete.”


In his studio in the 1930s. (Zeitgeist Films/Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's)

A self-portrait from the mid-1930s. (Zeitgeist Films/Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's)

That, by the way, is an accurate job description for a man whose career is hard to pigeonhole. Even Beaton’s World War II photographs have a certain romantic aesthetic to them, while just barely avoiding the glamorization of the battlefield.

Beaton himself also appears throughout the film in archival interviews, offering his own interpretation of a life guided by beauty above all. If that characterization sounds superficial, well, it is. Of the great Katharine Hepburn, Beaton is heard assessing not her talent, but her physical appearance, comparing the actress, somewhat dismayingly, to “a dried-up boot.”

One wonders what Beaton would make of “Love, Cecil.” Vreeland’s film certainly attempts to touch on its subject’s inner life: the emotional impact of the suicide, in 1933, of Beaton’s younger brother Reggie, for instance, as well as his relationships with his three great loves — art collector Peter Watson, Olympic fencer Kin Hoitsma and actress Greta Garbo. At the same time, its emphasis, almost by necessity, is on the external. Of a 1971 TV documentary about him, Beaton complained in his diary that the film, while entertaining, was “inconclusive” and “superficial.”

You might say the same thing about “Love, Cecil.”

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 98 minutes.