Verdict: You won’t have seen anything quite like this delight of a doco – or anyone quite like its subject, 93yo Iris Apfel. Run don’t walk to the cinema, and get a bit o colour into your life!
Much along the lines of the wonderful 2011 doco Bill Cunningham New York, Iris is a delightful unfolding portrait of one of the Big Apple’s beloved elder characters, the inspiring and gloriously unique fashion and design veteran Iris Apfel. Fittingly, the filmmaker is another celebrated New Yorker of advanced years, octogenarian documentary maker Albert Maysles, now deceased. This is Maysles’ feature length swansong, and a lovely, joyous one it is.
He takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, tracking Iris through her daily activities, capturing apparently spontaneous conversations and interactions as they happen. There is no sense of a camera crew being present, except for a couple of occasions when Mayles appears in shot as Iris responds to him directly. There is obvious simpatico between them, which is clearly key to the success of the work. Iris is not the type to abide manipulation or tolerate discomfort with the filmmaker or process, although she must have exercised great patience in changing outfits – there are so many, they can’t all have been the result of brilliant editing from months of footage (especially in sequences when continuity of conversation is maintained, while her clothes change with every cut!).
Her sartorial creations are a type of perfomance art, endlessly fascinating, all pushing flamboyance and eclecticism to the limit but somehow stopping millimetres short of caricature or catastrophe. She’s a fashion magpie, plundering clothing and material from op-shops, high-end designers, weekend kitsch markets, and ethnically diverse religious and traditional sources the world over. Applying her off-beat but pitch-perfect sense of style, combinations that should not match work brilliantly: garish colours, armfuls of bangles and multiple necklaces that might clash under less expert orchestration are impossibly harmonious and intrinsic to her look, along with a kaleidoscopic parade of whacko accessories, and her trademark oversized thick-rimmed round specs and swept-back grey hair.
For all her eccentricity of appearance and focus on ‘style’, Iris is anything but skin-deep, and there is nothing remotely pretentious or precious about her. Astute in her observations on life, sharp-witted, mildly irreverent and given to wry, self-effacing humour, her catchcry is “that sounds like fun.” Indeed, this was the attitude that led her to start a career-making business in 1948 with her husband Carl (who celebrates his 100th birthday during the film) manufacturing fine fabrics recreating in finest detail classic designs and patterns no longer available.
Her 90+ years have forced her to slow down (“Oh — when I get up in the morning, everything I have two of, one hurts”). She sometimes rests in a wheelchair when her legs fail her, but is in such demand that she can but complain in a desultory sort of way before abandoning herself to her ongoing whirlwind of social and fashion engagements, which include giving advice to adoring young design students. Then, of course, there are her frequent shopping excursions to add to her dizzy collection of outlandish outfits and accessories.
Put aside any distaste or cynicism you might have for the fashion industry and its denizens. You won’t have seen anything quite like this film – or anyone quite like Iris. As the great old girl observes, life is mostly pretty dull, but “colour raises the dead.” So grab this delight of a movie experience while ya can and get a bit o colour into your life. Be warned: you may find yourself tempted to pop into your nearest op shop on the way home to impulsively buy something way too loud and outrageous. Then again, if it sounds like fun…
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives