New York style maven Iris Apfel at center of new doc
Legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles penultimate film lacks mystery and intrigue
It's not a given that a great filmmaker with a great subject will make a great film. For a case and point you don't need to look much further than Iris, the new film from legendary documentarian Albert Maysles about New York style maven Iris Apfel. That's not to say Iris is a terrible movie. It's a curious, sometimes fascinating portrait of a self-described "geriatric starlet," who, even at 93, seems to be in the process of developing a singularly engaged, colorful relationship with the world.
As in his celebrated 1975 cinéma vérité documentary Grey Gardens, a defining classic of the genre which focused on eccentric mother and daughter Edith and Little Edie Beale, Iris has a way of slowly immersing viewers in the subject's world. (Grey Gardens was made by Maysles and his brother David, who died in 1987; Albert passed away in March of 2015 after filming of Iris, his penultimate movie, concluded.) Especially revealing are shots of Apfel at home with her husband, Carl. The pair are like two playful children (he turned 100 during the course of the filming) among the piles and piles of Iris' stuff, which, despite its strange admixture of kitsch and class, always seems uncluttered and unclashing. Things are bathed in a sort of warm glow, and there's real poignancy in Carl's humoring of Iris' whims and in her deep concern for his health as he ages. In one scene, the plainspoken Iris describes how she hid her broken hip from Carl because she knew it would worry him. Her world is no less self-created than the Beales, but it's far less troubled and less turbulent, ultimately less interesting and less stylish, and most surprising of all, less seductive than theirs.
Iris interacts more with the outside world than the Beales, so Maysles in the later film can show more typical documentary head-shot interviews of subjects discussing the subject, the absence of which in Grey Gardens helped give that film its sense of mystery and strangeness. Though they're all fierce individualists, iconoclasts, and exhibitionists, I think the Beales were ultimately more candid and revealing than Iris, who is mostly captured in moments of public display.
Iris is also released into a thorny political environment and an unbalanced world, something the film barely seems to take into account. The film asks us to accept Iris and Carl as beautiful children — curious, playful, loving — and they certainly are, but viewers may develop complicated feelings about watching the former, a one-percenter, haggling over teddy bears at an outdoor market or picking out leather jackets and beaded bracelets at a discount Harlem shop and then returning to be waited on by her staff at her Park Avenue apartment or Palm Beach condo. Iris rails against homogenization, but one starts to wonder, "Is declarative individuality itself a sort of luxury for her?" Colorless, manufactured conformity is derided, but after all, in the end, it's all some people can afford. It's not a particularly welcome or intended avenue of thought, but there it is.
Iris meanders, a quality which gave Grey Gardens its dreamlike, suspended-in-time strangeness, but here it just tends toward the babbling. Iris would seemingly be a great subject — stylish, theatrical, intelligent, witty, and wise — and she's all of those things, but the majority of her style is actually expressed in her clothes, not in her personality as one would hope to discover in a film like this. The outrageous outer layer may suggest it covers great depths, but it's a beginning, middle, and an end for Iris. As she herself points out in the film, getting dressed for the party is more fun than going there. More often than not, the event itself is pretty much a bore.
Iris would seemingly offer a welcome chance to return to the subject of iconoclastic womanhood, handled so brilliantly by the director in Grey Gardens, but the later film, which inevitably invites comparison, never quite achieves the memorable sense of weightless suspension and mystery of the earlier masterpiece. (2 out of 5 stars)