It was always a little too easy to laugh at Imelda Marcos. The gold and the kitsch, the fine art and the tchotchkes, the rows of bedazzled shoes and the towering dome of shellacked hair — it was all so very much, so very vulgar, so very, very expensive. During the roughly two decades that Marcos was the first lady of the Philippines, she became famous for lavish habits that make the Kardashians seem like skinflints. Even after the Marcos family fled the Philippines in 1986, her extravagance often received more attention than her role in what was called a “conjugal dictatorship.”
In the documentary “The Kingmaker,” Lauren Greenfield trots out the plunder and of course the shoes — those notorious emblems of Marcos’ excess — but also examines the appalling costs of that luxury. It’s an ugly story shrewdly told, with a sense of humor and also a deeper feeling for history. In the years since Marcos and her husband, Ferdinand (who died in exile, in Hawaii, in 1989), were ousted after the People Power Revolution, too many journalists have called on her to gawk and dish. Greenfield, a fine-art photographer turned filmmaker, has something else in mind, as telegraphed by the aerial shot of ramshackle Manila shanties that starts the movie.
This opener introduces Greenfield’s dialectic approach, which emerges slowly. Under her scrupulous gaze — the directors of photography are Lars Skree and Shana Hagan — Marcos, aka the Iron Butterfly, floats through her homes, tended to by anxious aides. She chats under a Picasso, poses before a Michelangelo. She displays reams of legal documents from her many court battles and drifts down memory lane, at one point showing off photos of herself with the woman she calls Mrs. Mao (Jiang Qing) and with Richard Nixon. When Marcos accidentally knocks over some photos, shattering the glass in the frames, the moment vibrates with metaphoric force.
Greenfield doesn’t explain how she secured her remarkable access, though she clearly has a gift for wrangling the self-obsessed. Her documentary “The Queen of Versailles” (2012) centers on a billionaire couple (primarily its title subject, Jackie Siegel) who planned to build the largest privately owned house in the United States. Perhaps Marcos saw “Queen of Versailles” and liked what she saw. Or maybe she simply wanted the attention to stoke her political ambitions, specifically from a respected chronicler like Greenfield. It’s hard not to wonder if Marcos regarded the filmmaker as another would-be courtier or even an acquisition (a mistake).
Whatever the case, as Greenfield quickly reminds you, one way into a narcissist’s heart is to turn on a camera and microphone, and let vanity take over. From the instant that Marcos appears in “The Kingmaker” — gliding through the streets of Manila in a van as if in a mobile throne — it’s obvious that she remains ravenous for attention, whether from the camera or from the indigent people clamoring outside her window. It’s unsurprising that she rarely appears alone here, though it’s unclear if she needs all her helpers or is simply accustomed to armies of servants. This is, after all, a woman who apparently had a maid whose sole job was to care for her jewelry.
Despite the early images of conspicuous poverty, Greenfield initially seems to be going somewhat easy on her subject. “During my time, there were no beggars,” Marcos says soon after the movie begins, while cruising past destitute people and rundown streets. Greenfield doesn’t overtly challenge this assertion, perhaps because it’s so ridiculous. Instead, she cinematically builds a case against Marcos by folding in increasingly tough interviews with brutalized anti-Marcos activists and by deploying a surgical attention to detail: images of grasping hands are contrasted with manicured hands holding money; stuffed animals are set against images of real abused wild ones.
Marcos, who turned 85 in 2014, the year that Greenfield started shooting, continues to look remarkably robust as the years pass by, never more so than in front of the crowds that swell in size and intensity at the political rallies she attends. As the throngs burgeon, the movie’s tone grows ominous. Marcos’ children enter and exit, flexing their own political power. Her son, Bongbong, runs for vice president. An alliance emerges between her daughter Imee (also a politician) and the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose violent, so-called war on drugs has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20,000 people and international condemnation.
As Greenfield opens “The Kingmaker” up, the Philippines’ past and present move uneasily into alignment, and the movie becomes more interesting and far more disturbing. Notably, it also becomes less about one woman, her malevolent charms and quirks, and develops into an unsettling look at imperial power. That said, there are moments when you wish that Greenfield had pushed harder in “The Kingmaker,” say, by taking a closer look at American intervention in the Philippines. But when she interviews an old friend of the Marcoses who chortles about American support for despots, the movie — like his comment — becomes the tragedy it was meant to be.
‘The Kingmaker’ is rated R, for images of murdered people. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.