“I like individuality. It’s so lost these days. So much sameness. Everything is homogenized. I hate it. Whatever.” From that quote in the film’s opening moments, it’s evident that 93-year-old Iris Apfel has lost none of her spirit or style. She shines through in every frame of Albert Maysles’s intimate documentary, “Iris.” It’s so familiar a look at the nonagenarian’s life that – editorial rules or not – we’re tempted to call her by her first name throughout our review. She’s friendly with the camera and the man behind it, showing none of the distance one might expect from an icon with multiple rooms of her Park Avenue apartment devoted to her clothes and accessories collection that was large and distinct enough to merit its own exhibit at the Met.
It’s easy to take a look at the quirky subject of Maysles’s documentary and draw comparisons to the Beales, two of his earlier and most famous focuses in “Grey Gardens.” But Iris is nowhere near the eccentric that they were, despite having her arms and neck weighed down by pounds of jewelry. The film gives a brief look back at her life, and claims she was the first woman to wear jeans, founding textile company Old World Weavers with husband Carl Apfel, and doing interior design at the White House for a number of Presidents. However, most of the focus is on her current experience, and how vital and interesting she remains. She helps curate Bergdorf’s windows and travels uptown to Harlem to bargain for clothes and jewelry.
Maysles died earlier this year, and “Iris” marks his penultimate film, with train doc, “In Transit,” recently making its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. Though “Iris” is a film focused largely on fashion, to dismiss “Iris” as a slight entry in the director’s long career discredits the subject’s work and passion. Throughout her long life, Apfel spends time as an interior decorator, designer, model, muse, guest lecturer, and more, but she never appears a dilettante. It’s all part of her cohesive narrative, where she is always driven by creativity and individuality in her life. The documentary is an excellent argument for fashion as art, from the Met exhibit to the sheer amount of imagination required for Iris shopping or getting dressed in the morning.
“Iris” will be most interesting to fans of fashion, but it’s not a documentary that excludes those unfamiliar with its subject matter. If appearances from Dries Van Noten, Alexis Bittar, and Tavi Gevinson mean little to the uninitiated, there’s always the gushing meeting with Kanye West to drive home Iris’ cultural impact. J.Crew’s Jenna Lyons shows a few times, popping up at the CFDA Fashion Awards and Carl’s 100th birthday party. Iris’ style may seem over the top for daily wear, but it’s not hard to see her influence on brands and people like Lyons, with a mixture of high and low, as well as a heap of statement jewelry.
Beyond her style, Iris’ relationship with her husband is always engaging. They’re the couple that still holds hands in the back of a cab after six decades of marriage. “I figured he was cool, he was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese, so I couldn’t do any better,” she says of him, while he smiles. He adds, “It’s not a dull marriage, I can tell you that.” Maysles has succeeded in crafting a portrait that keeps Iris entirely human, even through layers of clothing and makeup, as well as her living legend status.
“It’s better to be happy than well-dressed,” Iris proclaims, but she’s managed to do both. She chooses what to wear based on what will make her happy, and that joy infuses the film. Set to a rock-and-roll soundtrack, with titles featuring the bright colors Iris adores, Maysles’ documentary is energetic and vibrant. “Iris” is the cinematic equivalent of a party, with its titular character as its host. There are plenty of interesting people in attendance, but she’s the real star, and at less than 90 minutes, we wish the celebration would have gone on just a bit longer. [A-]