When documentary-maker Kevin Macdonald was looking for a project to work on during lockdown, his instincts took him to one subject in particular – the phenomenon by which people are ostracized for voicing opinions deemed inappropriate, unfashionable or offensive.

“I became very interested in cancel culture,” the Oscar-winning Scot tells me over Zoom from his home in London. He especially wanted to know “how people who have been cancelled come back, and whether there’s a way in the post-religious world that you can find forgiveness in society [for] people who have committed social crimes.”

Because few social crimes are more heinous than being filmed spouting drunken racist abuse at complete strangers, Macdonald alighted on the person of John Galliano as the prism through which to view these larger themes.

Once the enfant terrible of British fashion, South London-born Galliano was creative director of luxury brand Dior in 2010 when he was filmed making viciously antisemitic remarks to two women outside a Paris cafe. When the footage surfaced he was fired. In 2011 he was put on trial in Paris, found guilty and fined. From grace to disgrace – it was quite the fall.

But what is Galliano’s side of the story and how does he feel about it now? Perhaps surprisingly, when Macdonald approached him for an interview he found a subject who was more than willing to speak and who needed little convincing to go in front of the camera.

The Herald: Kate MossKate Moss (Image: free)

“I wouldn’t say he was seeking redemption but he wanted to explain himself. That’s how he would put it. He wanted people to understand him, even if they didn’t forgive him.”

Macdonald flew to the south of France for the pair’s first meeting. There he filmed Galliano standing on rocks in homage to one of the designer’s favourite films – Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic, Napoleon. Then he set up in Paris for the straight-to-camera confessional interviews which make up the bulk of his gripping and compelling new film.

“An early title was The Confessions Of John Galliano,” he says. “I felt like I wanted the audience to be able to look into his eyes and make their own mind up. Is he sincere, is he not sincere? What does he remember, what does he not remember? That’s the question, the sort of psychological thriller running through it in a way. You’re asking yourself: ‘Who is this person? Can you ever know what’s going on inside somebody else’s mind?’”

In the end Macdonald opted for High & Low, an apt enough description of Galliano’s life to date. The documentary is out next month but ahead of the theatrical release it screens at the upcoming Glasgow Film Festival.

Whatever they think about Galliano and his actions, audiences won’t be able to ignore his charisma or on-screen magnetism. One interviewee notes that if he hadn’t been a designer he could have been a film star. Elsewhere the presence of Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss demonstrate the loyalty Galliano’s friends still feel for him.

“Kate Moss doesn’t do interviews. She hates them. This was a measure of how much people love John,” says Macdonald, painting a picture of the fashion icon as anxious and jittery but determined to stand by her fellow South Londoner and tell it like it is. “There’s a rawness to her, and a realness. She’s one of these people who can’t tell a lie. She’s not going to give you the PR bullshit.”

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Another fact audiences can’t ignore is Galliano’s genius and his impact on fashion. Running though his subject’s childhood as the son of a Spanish mother and an abusive Gibraltarian-Italian father, Macdonald takes the viewer through the London of the early 1980s as Galliano graduates with a splash from Central St Martins (his degree show was inspired by the French Revolution) then sets up his own label, called simply Galliano. Moving to Paris in 1989 he becomes a left-field appointment to head up Givenchy in 1995, and just a year later moves to fashion heavyweight Dior. Replacing him at Givenchy is another young British talent – Alexander McQueen.

But with hard work and luxury brand responsibilities came stress, and with stress came a reliance on the intoxicants which can lead to addiction. In Galliano’s case, they did. It’s a common story and one Macdonald has broached previously in Whitney, his 2018 documentary about singer Whitney Houston. Galliano’s tale has had a different outcome, however.

“This is a very unusual story in a familiar genre in the sense that there’s a whole number of films about artists who grapple with addiction and genius and die young,” says Macdonald. “In this instance, it’s not a three act structure – early promise, success, then downfall – it’s a four act structure: promise, success, downfall. Then: ‘Oh, my God I’ve got to actually answer for my actions.’”

Did Galliano give Macdonald the sense that had he not been publicly shamed his drinking might have killed him? “One hundred per cent. He says: ‘This incident saved my life’. I think that’s something other addicts can probably relate to: something really horrible has to happen.”

In terms of those actions and that incident, it’s worth noting Macdonald’s own interest. The grandson of British-Hungarian film-maker Emeric Pressburger, a Jewish emigre, Macdonald lost family in the Holocaust, and his Oscar win came for 1999 documentary One Day In September, about the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The Herald: Kevin Macdonald, director of High & LowKevin Macdonald, director of High & Low (Image: free)

“I do have that heritage and I lost a lot of family,” he says. “I’m certainly sensitive to the issues and obviously the film is now coming out in the environment which is very different from the one it was conceived in.

“I think that side of the film actually brings home the prosecution case, that it’s important what you say. It matters. It can affect people and change a climate and an environment, and from verbal violence can come physical violence.”

Perhaps John Galliano’s fourth act atonement in High & Low is running alongside a fifth act, which is his rehabilitation and comeback. Just days before we speak, the designer’s 2024 Spring collection for Maison Margiela has wowed Paris Fashion Week and Macdonald’s film closes with footage from Galliano’s 2022 show for the same label.

“It’s about a film being made live on stage,” Macdonald laughs, appreciating the irony. “The actors, who are the models, say lines which John has written which are about his life. They’re all about redemption and violence and forgetting, and it’s all done in the style of a film noir. I realised the process of being filmed for the documentary inspired him to do a show about the process of film-making.”

You can’t not admire the man’s brio and creative daring. But having sat opposite him and asked the questions, what does Macdonald make of how genuine his subject’s contrition is on the big issue at the heart of High & Low?

“I think it’s unknowable, ultimately,” he answers. “I spent an inordinate amount of time with my editor not editing and instead debating what we thought. It was one of the things that made us realise it’s an interesting film … People really want to discuss it and everyone has different opinions.”

High & Low: John Galliano is released on March 8, and screens at the Glasgow Film Festival on March 5 and 6.