Director Albert Maysles couldn’t have picked a grander figure to document than Iris Apfel for his eponymous film, Iris. Indeed, Maysles and Apfel are a match made in celluloid heaven. Maysles’ trademark cinema verite style gives the iconic style maven plenty of room to hold court, while the camera quietly watches. And hold court she does.
Apfel’s presence is felt even before the movie begins. We hear a mysterious clicking underneath the opening credits. The sound is revealed in the film’s first frame to be a massive cluster of heavy amber necklaces that she wears all at once. They are as colorful as she is and set the stage for a vivid portrayal of a vibrant personality, who’s been known for decades in interior design and fashion circles for her discerning eye and uncanny ability to mix high and low design in fashion and decorating.
A lot of what ninety-three year old Apfel does seems slightly off-kilter, but what’s fascinating is that it also almost always works. We see her in her Park Avenue apartment, as she roams around a delightful but crowded blend of found objects and high-end pieces that she’s collected from far-off lands, estate sales and local street vendors alike. Oh, and the clothes -- they’re hung double high in closets and taking over rooms on racks and, of course, worn in flamboyant combinations by Apfel. Designer names are juxtaposed with garb traditionally worn by monks, flea market finds and costume jewelry. Such curatorial brilliance is what she’s known for.
We get to experience it in action during a shopping trip in Harlem, as well as while she styles pieces from her wardrobe for a window display at Bergdorf Goodman’s. We learn that her unique fashion sense started early. She shares memories about being singled out by Mrs. Loehmann of Loehmann’s Department Store in Brooklyn, not for her looks, but for her style instead. Much later, she reaches celebrity status, when curator, Andrew Bolton, decides to feature her obsessive collection of clothing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in a wildly successful exhibition entitled Rare Bird: The Irreverent Iris Apfel in 2005. All the while, we watch and hang on the master’s seemingly endless, pithy bon mots on fashion and life. Examples: “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed” or “More is more. Less is a bore”.
One could easily compare the idiosyncratic subject of Iris to Maysles portrayal of Edie in Grey Gardens in 1975. You can’t take your eyes off of either of them. Both are completely original. Indeed, Apfel puts a premium on originality, “I like individuality. It’s so lost these days. So much sameness,” she says.
The difference between the two films is that, while the Grey Gardens characters don’t seem to know how the camera is portraying them, Apfel seems fully aware of the persona that is being projected onto the screen. She loves all of the attention she’s been getting as of late, but also seems to find it slightly amusing. She embraces her role as “geriatric starlet” (her words) and genuinely seems to enjoy the adoration of her many fans including Kanye West and Jenna Lyons, Creative Director and President of J. Crew, but seems equally star struck by them. She’s perfectly willing to have a bully pulpit for her many ideas about life and style and how they intersect, but also wary of how personal to get with the camera.
This duality only serves to add to her charm. After awhile, though, we are as exhausted as she is flitting around from this Home Shopping Network promo to the next magazine shoot complete with wacky headdresses. We long for a little more depth about Apfel to round out the style and fame. With so many opinions, why do we feel like there’s a lot we don’t know about her?
Apfel is at her most intimate when on camera with her partner-in-crime and husband, Carl Apfel, who turned one hundred during the filming of the movie. Their relationship is doting and tender, and their eyes sparkle when they look at each other. They have fun together too. It’s safe to say that Iris is more devoted to Carl than to fashion. They’ve been married since “dinosaurs walked the earth”, and still refer to each other as “my child bride”.
Near the end of the film, Apfel starts an almost ritual endeavor of ridding herself of some of her stuff. During these poignant sequences, she’s uncharacteristically quiet, but also the most revealing about what might lie underneath the dazzling public persona. In one, she drifts around, looking rather lost and small, in a huge warehouse in Long Island City, New York, which she owns to hold the overflow of tchotchkes she’s collected over the years and mementos from her life. She expresses some melancholy about letting them go, but says that it’s time. She’s not particularly direct about what she means by “it’s time”. But we can fill in the blanks of her silence. She’s ninety-three and aware of the implications of her age.
Maysles’ camera is respectful of Apfel’s reticence. Perhaps, he’s aware of the limitations of his own lens filming her as well. The last shot of the film isn’t Apfel making any grand pronouncements or greeting her adoring public. (spoiler alert) It’s a long shot of Iris in her apartment with her husband, Carl, walking out of the room and, then, out of the frame. The end.