Movie review: Iris Apfel is fascinating, but Albert Maysles' Iris is a mixed bag | Arts

Movie review: Iris Apfel is fascinating, but Albert Maysles' Iris is a mixed bag

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Iris Apfel in Iris - PHOTO BY BRUCE WEBER / COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • photo by Bruce Weber / courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
  • Iris Apfel in Iris
Iris
★★★
Now playing


The late Albert Maysles’ documentary Iris, which is getting a local theatrical release after screening at Full Frame, captures the daily life of the eponymous Iris Apfel as she goes about her business as an international style icon. Apfel, an interior designer, founded the rare-textile company Old World Weavers before becoming a fashion darling in her 80s. Iconic for her huge glasses, loud outfits and shock of lavender-tinted white hair, Apfel is a fascinating human, but Iris is a mixed bag.

At 90, Apfel is absolutely charming in her salty New York bluntness, as she dispenses wisdom left and right. Early on in the film, she remembers the founder of the department store Loehmann’s, where she worked as a young shop girl, telling her, “You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter cuz you’ve got something more important. You’ve got style.”

Maysles is excellent at documenting a certain kind of female eccentricity—one thinks of the loopy, compelling Little Edie of 1975’s direct cinema classic, Grey Gardens. But unlike much of his previous work, Iris is not a very meticulously crafted film. It often looks and feels like a reality TV show. Slightly higher production values would have done justice to what sets Apfel apart as a stylist: an incredible eye for color and a baroque sense of design. We get some idea of her sensibility, but the whole film has the grayish cast of inexpensive video, which dulls the vibrancy of her baubles.

Some of the most winning footage is of Apfel going shopping, which, for her, constitutes a mad form of play. She haggles with the salespeople; she combines improbable items of clothing; she glows when she finds just the right pieces. She distinguishes herself from other collectors by finding no venue too low or weird. “Everything I have, I go out and find,” she says. This adventurousness is exactly what has made her a role model: for her, fashion is about a kind of creativity that offers the opportunity for self-creation beyond beauty (Apfel rails a lot against beauty). Any dedicated thrift shopper can identify with her lifelong treasure hunt.

For all of Apfel’s wit and verve, Iris does strike some ambivalent notes. The film makes clear that she is not just some gleeful eccentric. She is an international fashion brand. Maysles includes a lot of the corporate marketing side of Apfel’s career. We see her styling an army of mannequins, all of which will eventually bear her signature round, oversized frames.

For all of Apfel’s complaining about the lack of originality in contemporary fashion, one gets the sense that the lady doth protest too much. Especially when you see her hawking assembly-line reproductions of her trademark accessories on QVC. Still, Iris is a fun romp through the closet of a very cool and well-traveled person whose wit alone may be enough to justify the price of admission.

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