DIR: Albert Maysles • WRI: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen • PRO: Carl Apfel, Iris Apfel
There is something both poignant and apt about the fact that Iris would be Albert Maysles’ final film. Taking 93-year-old, New York fashion icon Iris Apfel for its subject matter, the movie is as much a meditation on old age as the celebration of ideas and the act of creation; not least on foot of the fact that Maysles himself was aged 87 at the time of its premiere at the 2014 New York City Film Festival, and Iris’ husband Carl turned 100 during filming.
Through Maysles’ hallmark style, we witness the world according to Iris, and it’s a privilege to pass through it, albeit fleetingly. A woman for whom living life on her own terms and following her gut instincts have proven hugely rewarding, Iris’ astute business skills and flair for interior design have seen her creations make their way into the White House via her company Old World Weavers.
As Iris herself observes in the documentary, while a well known figure on the fashion scene, a 2005 exhibition of her astounding clothing and couture jewellery collection brought her very much into the limelight. We learn about this experience through a combination of Iris’ recollections and footage of the exhibition which took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was entitled Rara Avis, or Rare Bird. Maysles’ documentary manages to convey just how apt this name is for a collection belonging to such a unique individual. Another wonderful inclusion which complements his work is a montage of Carl Apfel’s photography which gives us a sense of the life they lead together, travelling the world to bring back material and artefacts to populate their company’s designs.
While all of this, together with footage of more recent events, provides a vivid context for Maysles’ documentary, at its heart is the intimate portraiture he creates of a truly free-spirited human being and her beloved husband as they recall their lives and negotiate old age together. For the most part, this is conveyed with humour, but it is not without its pathos.
Maysles succeeds in capturing a significant truth about Iris; while she managed to create a name for herself and forge a successful career on the New York fashion scene, none of this appears to have been achieved by conforming to anyone’s expectations. A piece is as likely to catch her eye in a thrift shop as on the catwalk, and it is immensely refreshing to find that it is her innate love of colour and style that drives her choices and lies at her very core, and this emanates from her, transcending more than her years.
Anyone expecting to achieve an insight into the New York fashion scene or the city itself won’t find this in Iris. They will, however, be rewarded with something far greater; an enriching and honest personal account of the triumph of individuality and creativity over conformity and conventionality.
Iris’ movements are more often than not accompanied by the clinking and rustling of her remarkable jewellery. Maysles’ last film opens to this sound alone, and in these moments before an accompanying visual appears, it is as if both his creation and Iris’ are being permitted to resonate, much like their collective legacies.