Iris Apfel offers explicit testament to the intangible dialogue between art and life. Anything done well, with care and expressiveness, can be art—and life, of course, is the totality of everything that might be best enjoyed through a mastery of some variation of the former. Art, then, is a process of whittling life down to a manageable control group. Iris’s greatest creation is her public persona, as she’s fashioned an outer skin—a portable, ever-shifting art—that appears to complete and please her. She’s managed to live financially from this form of self-actualization, working first as an interior designer, then, with her husband, Carl Patel, as an entrepreneur of fabric manufacturing, and, decades later, as a fashion icon who’s seemingly everywhere chic at once, turning herself into a legend in the process. Most jobs, especially those that are low-rung white-collar, in which we punch things into keyboards for hours a week, don’t offer such a tactile merging of the interior (personality) with the exterior (social obligation), instead fostering an either/or dichotomy that greatly contributes to the self-questioning neuroticism of our culture at large. Iris is a woman powered by synchronicity, which is why she attracts throngs of worshipful admirers of all ages who yearn for a similar reconciliation between soul and skin.
This unity is famously and distinctly embodied by Iris’s wardrobe. There are the glasses, which are big, egg-shaped, and often correctly described as “owlish.” The eyewear is complemented by her shock of white hair, which offers compelling testament to hipness after age 90, and by an elaborate procession of accessories that combine high-end designer jewelry with antiques, Native-American handicrafts, bargain-bin knickknacks, and everything imaginable in between. The key to Iris’s fashion brilliance is simply described, ineffably achieved: The intricacies of her inspirations, both in her ensembles as well as in her celebrated interior designs, don’t announce themselves as such. One doesn’t catch Iris “working” at her look. Lightness of technique is one of the basic attributes of artistic transcendence. Iris is always seemingly naturally crisp, rumpled, eccentric, confident, and with confidence comes sexiness.
Director Albert Maysles emphasizes these transcendent qualities in Iris, allowing them to reach a cinematic blossom. The documentary is a celebration of redemptive totemic obsession. The filmmaker captures the comfort that clothes, toys, and other objects tangibly bring to a clotheshorse, thusly negating much of the snide elitism that often infuses reporting based on fashion figures. Much of Iris, like many of Maysles’s prior productions, is an assemblage of shards of incident in which the subject talks to the camera, while performing minute (though, in this case, often glamourous) activities that don’t initially appear to signify much of anything. In a more conventional director’s hands, this approach would yield either nothing or a film that’s less than nothing, with talking heads and voiceover that serves to awkwardly provide a theme that doesn’t otherwise arise from the shape of the footage. But Maysles, both a subtly precise formalist as well as a humanist, ensures that each shard contributes to a portrait that gradually emerges with cathartic clarity without compromising Iris’s inherent mystery, which is understood to be the universal unknowability that each person carries within them.
Certain details in Iris initially scan as obvious, even calculated, such as when Iris mentions that, as a teenager, the founder of Loehmann’s once took her aside and said, “Young lady, you’ll never be pretty. But you have style.” One can sense the fashionista fanning the flames of self-mythology with the reminiscence, offering a pat explanation for herself as an ugly duckling transformed by interests that might have had their origins in deflection or overcompensation. Maysles provides the line at least three callbacks though, echoing that sentiment until it reveals an authentic reservoir of pain. First, Iris is at Loehmann’s in the present day of shooting (now, the fashion retailer only exists online), operating as a wizened sage who’s advising poignantly grateful women on how to dress, or, more specifically, on how to discover how they want to dress. Later, we see Iris as she’s photographed for the cover of Paper magazine, drolly observing that she looks like a “ghoul.” Finally, with an intensity that suggests confession, Iris is glimpsed in close-up in one of her apartments, saying that she never liked “pretty,” and that women born pretty often fall into the trap of failing to cultivate anything else with which to live and define themselves. In this last sequence, Iris leaves the frame with a suddenness that suggests suppressed tears.
In the moment, the cumulative emotional effect of these various scenes isn’t as obvious as it retrospectively sounds, as the resonances assert themselves in the mind upon reflection. The forging of such a domino effect was one of Maysles’s great gifts as an artist. Certain parts of Iris, such as these scenes that collectively reveal an extraordinarily driven and creative woman who’s haunted by every-human’s ghosts, recall portions of the director’s other films, particularly Salesman, which followed door-to-door Bible peddlers as their hectoring gradually took on an unnerving dimension of pleading that said more about the loneliness and the desperation of the men’s lives than they ever intended to volunteer.
This irresolution lingers on the rebound, underneath every scene in Iris, though the film is outwardly a prismatic comedy that’s infused with the sensory exhilaration of living as a famous person who travels to Europe twice a year and is courted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (resulting in Iris’s career-defining exhibit “Iris Patel, Rare Bird of Fashion”) ¬and photographed by J.Crew and Vogue, among others, after reaching incredibly mobile advanced age. There’s an implicit kinship between Iris and Maysles, himself a remarkably prolific aging legend until his death last month, which informs Iris with a buddy-comedy warmth that’s unusual and seemly for the director, and this bonhomie is fleetingly, startlingly literalized when Maysles’s camera nearly positions itself into a first-person angle from behind Iris’s glasses. This is the master image of the film, embodying the great filmmaker’s ability to detail for the screen a process of attaining empathy, allowing this understanding to reverberate across a spectrum of images that have been cannily assembled to represent the spiritual extremis that resides within the physical quotidian.