An epigram often attributed to Coco Chanel is “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” If the elegant and refined Chanel took a look at Iris Apfel, the subject of noted documentarian Albert Maysles’ final film Iris, she would most definitely not approve.
When we are first introduced to the nonagenarian Iris, she is clad in loud colours and what looks like pounds of click-clacking jewellery. Despite her age, Iris is a fashion icon thanks to her eccentric style that treats vintage Dior and Versace pieces as the equals of hand-made traditional clothes and accessories from all around the world.
With her distinctive enormous round glasses, every time Iris appears on-screen she is an absolute treat to behold. She has an innate sense of how to dress herself to be as appealing as possible, which, as she explains, she has always had. She possesses that elusive trait known as “style.”
This film reveals that Iris Apfel is not all outward appearances, though. With her sharp wit and endearing New York hardness, she is a perfect character for documentary. Maysles’ camera captures a woman who is completely un-self-conscious, never forcing the special magic she has that makes people flock to her.
Albert Maysles (who sadly passed in March this year) is best known for the documentaries Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, made with his brother David, who died in 1987. Maysles’ documentary style is endearingly raw, and while Iris is a lot more polished than his earlier work, it still has the same intimacy.
Maysles has made the very smart decision to allow people who know Iris well and who have worked with her many times before to conduct “interviews” of sorts. Talking heads are kept to a minimum, and the most profound moments come when we see Iris conversing with her dear friends and especially her husband Carl, to whom she has been married since 1948.
The film eloquently explores the realities of aging. Iris is vivacious and bright most of the time, but also openly acknowledges Carl’s and her own health worries her. The film approaches these subjects with a light touch, though, when it could have become maudlin. What shines through always is Iris’s indomitable spirit.
Iris is a relatively light and breezy piece of documentary, but the strength of Maysles’ documentaries lies in their subtlety and nuance. In exploring Iris’s extensive and surprising wardrobe, this film beautifully evokes what a wonderful life she has had. There are many things that we can learn from her about confidence, self-trust and self-love, and that’s what makes Iris an essential documentary film.
Iris opens in cinemas in New South Wales on Thursday August 13.