About a half hour into Albert Maysles’ Iris, the late, great filmmaker takes his viewers on an open house through the gloriously untidy apartment of his subject, fashion maven Iris Apfel. She glides from place to place before sidling up to an unwieldy statue made in the image of a turkey. A Kermit the Frog puppet adorns the great bird, wearing his perpetual heartening smile. “That’s Gussie,” Iris casually tells the camera, as though Maysles and his viewing audience should already know the creature’s name. “Gussie is a bar. Her wing goes up, and her belly is full of booze.” She demonstrates Gussie’s impressive functionality before adding, “And Kermit decided he’d like to live here, and he’s become a terrible lush.”
And then the film goes on, Iris’s offhand irreverence is left unexplained. But the joy of Iris Apfel, and by extension of Iris, is that there’s no need to dissect the enigma. Iris is a character, through and through. If you saw her in a narrative film, you would fall in love with her as part of the interlocking elements of its mise en scène. In point of fact, if you’ve seen, say, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, then you probably already have. (Superheroic fashion designer Edna Mode is a composite of many real-life fashionistas, but you can find traces of Apfel in Edna’s accoutrements, particularly in the breadth of her face-obscuring glasses.) She’s unfailingly chill, regarding the world around her with snappy, quip-happy serenity.
It’s tempting to view Iris as a vanity project. Iris and Maysles are chums, and the outside sense one gets when either watching or merely reading about the film is that the latter decided to make a movie about the former for fun. If we accept this perspective then it’s very, very hard to earnestly hold Maysles’ indulgence against him; you would make a movie about Iris Apfel if you were buddy-buddy with her, too. She’s one of a kind. But Iris is about a lot more than one person making a flattering commemoration to another. It’s about observing a life lived (and still being lived) fully, and even that nifty summation doesn’t quite manage to dig out the alternatingly droll and piquant wisdom Iris has to offer every single person with whom she interacts. In one scene, an interviewer praises Iris for stepping outside of the box with her eclectic style. Iris’s reply feels like the lede of her personal manifesto: “If you’re just going to sit there and do the same damn thing all the time, you might as well jump into the box yourself.”
Moments like this deflate the notion that Maysles is simply shooting a documentary about one of his friends. When Iris talks about her approach to fashion, she’s not only talking about her gut instincts, which compel her to pair colors, fabrics and accessories other people might not dare to. (They wouldn’t look half as fabulous as she does, anyways.) She’s talking about individuality. She’s speaking to being true to oneself. There’s something punk rockish about Iris’ refusal to bow to trends, something admirably rebellious. Maysles’s film doesn’t rage against the fashion machine per se; there’s an undercurrent of opposition to playing dress-up by the numbers and following the herd. Be who you are. Iris is a vibrant, lively portrait of an icon in her field, but it’s also a celebration of inner (and outer) uniqueness.
Director: Albert Maysles
Starring: Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel
Release Date: April 29, 2015 (NY); May 15th, 2015 (wide)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.