Iris is a pure delight. Renowned cinematographer and director Albert Maysles—best known for his documentaries Grey Gardens (1975) and Gimme Shelter (1970)—tenderly gives his audience a heart-warming snapshot of the 90-something New York fashion icon Iris Apfel. Though void of any thesis, Iris is an ode to the wisdom, wit, and love that comes with experience and confidence. The tiny woman adorned in flamboyant patterns, costume jewelry, and oversized glasses proves that age is no barrier to a vibrant life.
Director: Albert Maysles
Producers: Jennifer Ash Rudick, Laura Coxson, Rebekah Maysles
Editor: Paul Lovelace
Premiere: October 9, 2014 - New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 29, 2015
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
When viewed by conventional standards, Iris is a complicated contradiction. A former textile supplier and interior decorator for the White House, she clearly has expensive and refined taste. Her clothing composed an entire exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005 and high-end stores like Bergdorf Goodman solicit her advice for new fashion lines. Her personal collection of clothing, jewelry, furniture, and tchotchkes fills three homes and a storage unit in Long Island. But she also haggles with store owners in Harlem for a $40 scarf and searches through $1 t-shirts at a flea market in Palm Beach. Despite this excess, Iris is shockingly down to Earth. She candidly tells the camera that she has no right to judge others’ wardrobes and that she isn’t pretty. Her outlook on life is simple: wear what makes you happy.
Maysles approaches his portrait with the same simplicity. His footage is frequently amateurish, capturing the boom mic in the frame or zooming in with a stutter. Including these mistakes only makes the film more endearing and eradicates the barrier between subject and camera. Iris too disregards filmic convention as she speaks directly to Maysles, making audiences aware of his presence behind the camera. Though Maysles’ filmography proves he is a master of his craft, Iris allows the director to capture his subject with a home movie-like intimacy. While Iris, the “rare bird of fashion,” is a cultural anomaly, she is not an inaccessible person and Maysles’s unembellished style emphasizes this.
Perhaps most charming about Iris is her recognition of the truly time-sensitive aspects of her life. Audiences have the privilege of witnessing her 70-plus year marriage to Carl Apfel. The couple never had children together, instead devoting their lives to their design business and each other. And their love is palpable. Carl sits patiently in the audience while Iris is interviewed on the Martha Stewart show, dressed in vintage slacks. She delicately rubs his neck as she delivers a speech at his 100th birthday. Together in West Palm Beach, they pick out a studded baseball cap that he proudly wears as they take a cab back to the airport, hand in hand. Here are two people who have dedicated their lives to each other and shared a passion for fashion and design. Though Iris’ quips on clothing make audiences laugh, her more somber remarks on the brevity of life offer depth to an otherwise light-hearted film. Maysles own death in March of 2015 underlines our fleeting time on Earth. Even those captured on screen are not immortal.
Iris is not a revolutionary documentary, but its modesty and sincerity make it a worthwhile trip to the cinema. Together, Maysles and Iris will convince you that you are never too old to love the life you live.