Can party-throwing be considered not just expression but art? That’s the argument “Susanne Bartsch: On Top” makes, as directing duo Anthony & Alex take their cameras into the Chelsea Hotel digs of legendary hostess-of-the-mostest Susanne Bartsch as she painstakingly prepares one of her colorful club soirees, as well as a gallery retrospective chronicling her decades as a fashion/nightlife figure.
A Swiss-born impresario of enchanting aesthetic severity who emerged from London’s avant-garde scene to become a New York fixture because of her glittering club blowouts, Bartsch is given her due as not just a Warhol-esque scene-maker, but as a champion of LGBTQ rights who created glorious cocoons of outlandish self-expression for life’s more theatrically minded outsiders. (RuPaul, whom Bartsch supported early on, is an executive producer.)
Though the film struggles to merit a feature-length running time, Bartsch — whether playing boss, partygoer, ruminative ex-wife or caring mother (her grown son Bailey speaks admiringly of mom’s various personae) — cuts an arresting figure, never more so than when the veil of performative fabulousness is lifted to reveal someone vulnerably invested in her legacy. (The story of her star-studded 1989 vogueing fundraiser for AIDS, told with great archival footage, is indeed moving.)
But the directors also seed their persuasive canonization with vivid testimonials from drag performers, party regulars and longtime colleagues who speak to her cultural relevance in affecting terms. What “Susanne Bartsch: On Top” makes clear is that the art of being seen, as facilitated by Bartsch, can carry unexpectedly poignant depth.
‘Susanne Bartsch: On Top’
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica