It’s somewhat bittersweet that Albert Maysles’ Iris arrives in theaters just weeks after the much-lamented passing of the great documentarian, but as penultimate send-offs go, it’s a delight. (His final film, In Transit, just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.) Playful, gently incisive, and full of life, Iris is a fitting tribute to Maysles’ enduring sensibilities as a filmmaker, and in its peak moments can comfortably stand alongside his best work.
Ostensibly a portrait of celebrated nonagenarian Iris Apfel, Maysles’ amiable document of his subject doubles as a subtle essay on a century of fashion and the cult of personality. Ninety-year-old Apfel, justly dubbed “the rare bird of fashion,” worked variously as an interior designer and fashion assistant before she and husband Carl launched their textile business Old World Weavers, a near-50-year enterprise during which time Apfel helped furnish the White House for multiple administrations. Moreover, Apfel traveled the globe assembling a remarkable collection of personal accoutrements, developing a style—or in today’s unfortunate parlance, her “brand”—that would become feted by the fashion and art worlds alike. In a telling moment, Apfel and Rookie style maven Tavi Gevinson are seen in conversation, and the teenager and elder icon resemble nothing less than peers.
Apfel was eccentric before “quirky” became a horrifying marketing buzzword, a style curator when it meant more than posting pictures of your brunch to Instagram. With her oversized thick-rimmed glasses, clashing palette of colors, fabrics and jewelry and shock of white hair atop a cartoon-like expression, she’s not so much eclectic as she is a full-blown sartorial big bang, though nothing is forced or attention-seeking. As we learn from the architect herself, Apfel’s appearance is an extension of her personality, itself a derivation of her admitted ugly-duckling beginnings. “You’ll never be pretty, but you have style,” the head of a fashion chain once informed her. “I never liked ‘pretty’,” Apfel later declares.
Iris may appear like a slight piece on the surface, an extended love letter from one elderly creative legend to another. Yet while Apfel cheerfully indulges her own mythology, she does so with a droll, knowing wit, tossing off epigrams with a refreshing sense of life’s inherent silliness. Maysles’ genius, as ever, permits the subject to unravel organically; he never condescends the film’s world (a fault of so many fashion docs), instead seeing in the richness of Apfel’s experience an analogy to the birth of modern style. “I like to improvise,” she says early on, “as though I’m playing jazz,” sounding less like a wizened veteran than an art school kid discovering the wonder of stripes mismatched with plaid. Apfel’s utopian methodology, meanwhile—scouring everything from high-end to dime stores and markets for her look—both predicts contemporary approaches to dressing and reflects her admirable lack of elitism, an element present in Maysles’ approach to filmmaking. That anything-goes elasticity, combined with an almost casually precise formalism, could apply to either subject or filmmaker here: there’s a vibrancy to both that’s a joy to watch.
It’s little surprise, perhaps, that Apfel at times recalls Maysles’ most famous subjects, the Beales of his Grey Gardens, and not just in her blissful peculiarities. There’s a sense that Little Edie might have even been Iris had she not become unmoored and held captive in her family mansion; both share an idiosyncratic style and an oddball composure separated by a measure of determination and luck (one wonders if either crossed paths, particularly when Apfel’s husband begins relating a story about Jackie Kennedy). As a film, too, Iris at times evokes aspects of Maysles’ masterpiece: the unobtrusive perspective and the mixture of wonderment and empathy. The film has that feeling that an entire strand of national history is being channeled through the ravings of a single figure.
In such effortless moments, Iris reminds us of why Maysles’ mattered so much. Iris never feigns importance as a documentary, and is all the richer for it. Both Apfel and Maysles have retained all the curiosity and inventiveness of youth, even as they acknowledge life’s final impermanence. “You don’t own anything when you’re here,” Apfel reflects at one point, an astonishing admission considering her colossal dedication to hoarding. “You really just rent.”
Published at Movie Mezzanine