People throw around the word “legendary” a lot these days, but it applies without qualification to the late Albert Maysles. A documentarian who pioneered the “fly on the wall” perspective decades before reality television made it ubiquitous, Maysles worked with everyone from Marlon Brando to The Beatles over the course of his towering career, which came to a close when he passed away in March at the age of 88. It’s fitting that, for his final act, Maysles chose to focus his camera on a personality bigger than Brando and the Beatles combined: that of 93-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel.
Maysles’ observational style seems a perfect match for Apfel, whose life, legacy, and oversized glasses barely squeeze inside a feature-length documentary. One suspects that Maysles could have simply trained a camera on his subject, left the room for a couple of hours, and still ended up with the makings of a compelling and often hilarious film. Such is the allure of this singular woman, whose preeminent status in the New York fashion world is surpassed by the more intimate aspects of her character — her razor-sharp, Brooklyn-bred wit, for example, or her uncanny ability to pluck life truths from her closet of outlandish fabrics. Iris is riddled with offhand observations that border on profundity, and to hear Apfel talk about clothing is to be invited inside a personal philosophy that encompasses everything from history and politics to life’s daily trivialities.
Maysles does well to stay out of Apfel’s way as she shuffles between magazine photo shoots, Palm Beach boutiques, and her dusty storage loft in Long Island. Though she often walks with a cane (“vertical” is her default response to anyone asking after her condition), Apfel rarely seems anything less than a force of nature. Her garish outfits have a magnetic power all their own, but Maysles makes it abundantly clear that Apfel’s ensembles are like little shards of mirror, each reflecting another facet of her personality. “Life is gray and dull, and you might as well have a little fun when you dress,” she reflects at one point, but what’s fun for Apfel resides beyond the furthest limits of a normal person’s imagination. After showing off a traditional Chinese shaman’s jacket that she went through some pain to find, she mischievously reveals her plan to “wear it as a cocktail outfit with skinny pants.”
Iris would be slighter (though still enjoyable) if it focused merely on Apfel and her rise to fame as a self-described “geriatric starlet,” but Maysles wisely focuses much of the film’s latter half on her relationship with her husband, Carl. The filmmaker’s camera lingers on the couple’s interactions, which routinely exhibit high levels of humor, wit, and mutual empathy. Maysles succeeds in capturing moments of quiet intimacy — the couple holding hands in the back of a car, for example, or Iris standing up and speaking for her frail husband at his 100th birthday party. The film seems especially drawn to these moments in its later chapters, in which Apfel reflects more on her health and age. In one scene, the camera stays on her for an extra beat as she watches Carl trying to catch his breath, a look of genuine concern flashing across her face. “As you get older, you realize that all these other things are just…” she trails off at one point, and this loss of words resonates more because we already know that, for Apfel, words are rarely in short supply.
In light of Maysles’ recent death, it’s tempting to find in Iris a reflection of the filmmaker’s own struggles with age. Maysles never seemed interested in drawing attention to himself, but in Iris Apfel he found a subject that he could relate to in at least one important way. Make no mistake about it: Iris is much more a celebration of life than it is a rumination on death, and it packs more laughs into its lean 78 minutes than most comedies manage in two hours. But it’s what’s below the surface — underneath the clothes, if you will — that makes this a film worth seeing, and a portrait of a life whose lessons are well worth learning.