Iris is a documentary portrait of Iris Apfel, the nonagenarian New York fashion icon. Nope, me neither, but that’s irrelevant, as all you truly need know is she is a joy, a wonder, and terrific, as is this film. It’s the final work of documentary film-maker Albert Maysles, who died last year, at 88, and although Iris obviously loves the camera, and plays to the camera, and it is often Iris doing Iris, as Iris does Iris so brilliantly, who cares? Also, you just can’t take your eyes off her. You can’t.
The opening shots show Iris, who is 93, in her Park Avenue apartment, in all her glory. Accessories make an outfit, is a fashion tip often proffered, but why make an outfit, when you can blast it out of the water? That seems to be Iris’s thinking, I would say, and she works it even though you wouldn’t imagine it possible. The outfits are madly patterned, or stripes layered upon stripes. They are hand-painted Versace, or vintage Valentino, or one-off Dior. But blasted they are, by the bangles that clank up to her elbows, the several statement necklaces worn simultaneously, and the glasses so oversized they make Edna Mode’s (from The Incredibles; do look her up) seem small fry, if not pathetic. She gets dressed, she says, as if she’s playing jazz! ‘Try this, try that…’ She also says: ‘The best thing isn’t going to a party or being at a party it is getting dressed for a party.’ She gives good one-liners. ‘Whatever I have two of, one of them hurts,’ is how she describes old age, but that only made me think she’d got off lightly. I’m not yet 93 but whatever I have two of, both hurt, and whatever I have one of, that hurts too.
Maysles — pronounced to rhyme with ‘hazels’, if that is of interest — is as much her co-collaborator as anything. She often addresses him directly. He is occasionally in shot. They are in this together, as he follows her to African bead shops in Harlem, and she flits between her various apartments, or visits the warehouse where she stores all her amazing stuff, or attends fashion functions where she is fawned over, and fawns right back. (Some of these fashion moments are a bit icky, I must confess.)
Her story is told incidentally, as and when. She is Jewish, half-Russian, was raised in Brooklyn, or so I gathered, to a mother who also worshiped at the altar of accessories. ‘No one could tie a scarf like my mother,’ Iris says proudly. She was herself obsessed from a young age, saving 65 cents for her first brooch, and would wander the aisles of Loehmann’s, the department store where, she remembers, Mrs Loehmann would sit on a high stool, like a tennis umpire, surveying everyone in the shop. One time Mrs Loehmann called her over to tell her she’d never be pretty, but she had something better than that: she had style.
She married Carl Apfel in 1948, and together they set up an interior design and textile business, which saw them criss-crossing the world and working at the White House for several presidents and also getting stinking rich, from the look of it. Carl celebrates his 100th birthday on screen. He adores her. ‘It’s been a beautiful trip,’ he says. She adores him. They never had children as she didn’t want any — ‘I wanted a career, I wanted to travel… you can’t have everything’ — but they may be each other’s children. Their Palm Springs apartment is packed with weird toys and Christmas decorations that are never taken down.
Although it’s mostly Iris doing Iris, and Iris lapping up attention and Iris dispensing her own tips (‘black isn’t style; black is a uniform’), Maysles, which still rhymes with ‘hazels’, does gently peel her back a little. In particular, we see her increasing frailty, when she lets it slip that worrying about her health keeps her awake nights, and we also see what it is to love someone and be married to them for 66 years. Iris falls and breaks a hip. Carl knows about the fall. An ambulance comes. But the hip? She won’t tell him about that. He’ll only get upset.
What is Iris Apfel? Performance art? Living history? A walking, talking lesson in how to keep doing what you do, even in to old age, if you still get a buzz from it? I don’t know. Like I said, I know only you can’t take your eyes of her. You truly can’t.
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