IRIS. Documentary with Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel, and Albert Maysles. Directed by Albert Maysles. Rated M (Coarse language). 75 min.
Iris Apfel is a famous fashion icon, who is resident in New York and over 90 years of age. In this highly enjoyable and fascinating documentary, she is interviewed, photographed, and directed by Albert Maysles, who was over 80 at the time.
Iris has a huge zest for life ("when she is not busy, she gets depressed"), an unbelievable sense of high style (for me, Iris says, "it is not intellectual; it is all gut"), and she is liberally endowed with a curious mind and a witty, cheeky sense of humour. She lives with her ailing husband, Carl, who lovingly shares her "assorted madness".
Iris began life in the fashion industry as an interior designer. Born in 1921 to Jewish parents in Queens Borough, New York, she quickly developed an unique sense of style. She talks of a mother, "who worshipped at the altar of the accessory", and her style is captured in the movie by showing her wearing huge glasses, swept-back hair, massively chunky jewellery, and bizarre-looking clothes. Iris mixes clothes that she finds in thrift stores - including embroidered cloths, patterned shoes, religious vestments, and virtually anything else that appeals to her. For Iris, colour reigns supreme. She never dresses boringly, and is widely regarded as a legendary collector of fashion, who found fame late in life for outrageous dressing.
Iris became in her own words, a "geriatric starlet" when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged an exhibition of her work, titled "Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel", in 2005. She has been a consultant to various inhabitants of the White House, and is known for "having a problem" with Jackie Kennedy. Her work currently is featured in the White House, and in major collections around the world, and she helps students learn about the fashion industry.
In this documentary, Albert Maysles follows Iris everywhere - sharing her conversations with him and other people, celebrating her appearances on television, and being with her at home and while she is travelling and shopping for accessories. He is well known for other documentaries on eccentric people, such as "Gimme Shelter", 1970 (about the Rolling Stones), and "Grey Gardens", 1976 (about two of Jackie Kennedy's unusual relatives). He died in March, 2015, aged 88.
No one can make a movie about Iris, without becoming absorbed totally in the "statement" she chooses to make. Iris captures the viewer's imagination from the moment she first appears, and she holds it. In most scenes she is oblivious to those around her and to passers-by, and she always dresses in an extraordinary way.
The documentary is directed, photographed and arranged with an excellent eye for detail by Albert Maysles. He edits tightly and paints a vivid portrait of Iris as a complete eccentric. He composes his scenes thoughtfully, and chooses to let her flamboyance speak for itself. The documentary is a heart-felt, intimate display of Iris' total nonconformity. Maysles makes sure that the importance of "style" is always emphasised for the viewer, and there is never any doubt that he loves Iris's rare fashion sense, the complete oddity of her life, and her undisputed creative flair.
There are conversations in this documentary on weighty issues like the relationship of the clothing industry to politics, history and science, the impact of ageing, and the fickleness of high couture fashion. Maysles chooses to concentrate nearly all the time, however, on a flattering portrait of Iris. The film is a warm, deeply personal picture of a fascinating woman who has lived and aged well, and who obviously loves being celebrated as someone completely different from anyone else.
This documentary doesn't convey profound truths or earth-shattering ideas. Rather, it is a film that celebrates gloriously the eccentricity and individualism of Iris Apfel. Iris is ageing, immensely talented, funny, and intellectually alive. She may be too creative to be a role model for most, but she is an inspiration for those who strive to look, and be, very different.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released August 13th., 2015