Iris – Film Review by Helen O’Leary
Director: Albert Maysles
Stars: Carl Apfel, Iris Apfel
The filmmaker Albert Maysles made this documentary at the impressive age of eighty-eight but his achievement is less remarkable when the subject of his film is a sprightly woman of ninety-three. The documentary charts the life and times of the fashion icon Iris Apfel, a “geriatric starlet” as she calls herself.
The documentary is mainly a series of interview pieces with Iris in her fifth avenue apartment and the camera follows Iris to various engagements around New York City.
In her early career as an interior designer Iris and her husband Karl furnished the homes of an exclusive and wealthy clientèle. They travelled abroad to source art and furniture for their business, and gradually Iris amassed an eclectic collection of antiques, fabrics and accessories from all over the world. Occasionally unable to find exactly the fabrics she wanted for client’s homes she took to designing her own. Her artistry and creativity was always apparent in the flamboyant way she dressed, but her transition to a fashion icon was partly accidental. Although known in New York fashion and design circles, an acquaintance’s passing remark on Iris’s remarkable collection of accessories to a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York resulted in the art museum hosting an exhibition. This unusual exhibition show-cased collections of Iris’s jewellery and accessories assembled and styled by her. Never advertised the exhibition’s success was by word of mouth and suddenly the “geriatric starlet “ was a media darling. Her distinctive image with rounded black frame spectacles and raked back silver hair was splashed across fashion magazines, normally the domain of twenty something year olds.
Iris has a refreshing attitude to the fashion industry for one around so long. She declares to have never considered herself pretty and makes a distinction between style that is timeless and transcends physical beauty which fades with time. She is utterly bemused by plastic surgery and revels in her own wrinkles. It is fascinating to watch her assemble an outfit, layering clothes and jewellery, using instinctive flair rather than a reasoned process. Her use of colour brings to mind the artist Frieda, very loud and bright but never vulgar or brash. The camera follows Iris on visits to street stalls, haggling with street vendors over pieces of costume jewellery that another might consider tacky, but Iris’s eye perceives something else. Age is seemingly irrelevant when you have passion and Iris has a schedule that is hectic by anyone’s standards. The camera tails her to various photo shoots, shopping trips and television appearances.
Aside from her role in the fashion industry the documentary also concentrates on her relationship with Karl. Married for sixty-six years we see the public face of their relationship, playful and fun, but also more private glimpses, a squabble over groceries. Karl despite his funny quips seems uncomfortable in the limelight. At age one hundred he cuts a lonely figure, slightly bemused by his wife’s whirlwind of ceaseless activity and engagements.
However despite her irreverence for age towards the end of the documentary we watch Iris packing her treasured collections to donate to a museum curator. She visits a warehouse where she is addressing the overwhelming task of disposing of her accumulated antiques. This footage makes the point that while accumulating possessions can be joy, they are also a burden towards the end of life, especially if like Iris you care what becomes of them.
We only catch a single glimpse of the documentary maker himself but it feels like Iris’s frank and often witty statements are for his benefit more than the audience. A fascinating documentary about a champion of individuality you don’t have to have a passion for fashion to enjoy this film.
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