Born and raised in Switzerland, Susanne Bartsch moved to the United States and reinvented herself as a legendary party girl “Queen of the Night” at the height of New York’s 1980s club scene. “Susanne Bartsch picked up where Warhol left off,” says RuPaul. The doyenne of NYC nightlife for decades, and still at it, she stirs together the art, fashion, and gay dance-club worlds to create extravagant spectacles. The film follows Bartsch’s (now in her early 60s) unconventional life as she plans a showstopping party and takes stock of her life.
Critique de Kate
Susanne Bartsch: On Top is a documentary film that tells the story of the legendary New York City party queen Susanne Bartsch. We watch as she plans an FIT Exhibit of her work in present day, and learn about the ways in which she fostered nightlife culture of New York City from the 1980s onward. Originally from Switzerland, we learn the complex story of this "Queen of the Night", through interviews with her on-again-off-again husband and luxury gym-chain owner David Barton, and particularly through interviews with their son, Bailey Bartsch Barton, a student at Brown when the documentary was shot. We also learn of The Love Ball, a massive charity fundraiser Susanne Bartsch organized in 1989, in which she rallied support from the fashion world to raise funds for AIDS research. Through her story, we learn about the evolution of stunning and innovative nightlife fashion in New York, the history of queer nightlife and culture in New York, the AIDS crisis, and how Bartsch helped so many individuals who felt like outsiders find a place to express their art and to fully be themselves.
The film moves seamlessly between present and past, as we see Bartsch live day to day in both eras, a woman who fully embodies living in the now. Though Bartsch herself does not seem to like to reflect, filmmakers Anthony & Alex and editor Taryn Gould have woven a story that tells a full, complicated story of who Barstch was in the past, how her past has shaped her today, and how she continues to be a key force in fashion and nightlife. The film is filled with segments of clips of party culture through the ages, in which we see extraordinarily artistic and inventive costumes worn by those at her parties; the film recreates the vibes of those parties for us, helping us to fully understand Bartsch's world.
It is particularly in interviews with Bailey that we understand the whole scope of Bartsch. Bailey illuminates the many sides of his mother, and explains how these individuals who were part of his mother's wild and radical world were incredibly loving towards him as a child. They embodied a village that helped raise him, along with two very caring parents.
The film blends humor, beauty and fun in ways that feel striking, revelatory and triumphantly rebellious. We learn how this particular New York city party culture has been influential in the fashion world and essential to those exploring gender and sexuality. The filmmakers have developed a wonderfully compelling narrative, delighting in the many ways to understand this legendary figure and telling a joyous, unexpected story.
Seen at the New York Lehman Auditorium in Altschul Hall, Athena Film Festival, Feb 23 2018
- Note de Kate: 4