Iris fulfills its own modest aims, which are primarily to allow fans of nonagenerian fashion icon Iris Apfel seemingly unmediated access as she conducts her (extensive) business practices, goes shopping, and generally sounds off. It’s not a complex portrait of a subject who reveals new facets over time, but more of a flattering, sometimes repetitive sketch of a friend’s unvarying routine. As one of two final films directed by the legendary Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter), Iris may be reflexively praised as a great swan song or put under undue scrutiny, but it’s a happily modest movie that, while frequently edging toward boredom, is never actively off-putting.
As Iris tells it, Apfel was known for years in the fashion world as an interior designer. But her clotheshorse acumen didn’t receive recognition until the Met put on an exhibition of her eclectically sourced outfits, gaining her an exponentially larger fanbase. Apfel is known for buying her wardrobe both from prominent and expensive designers and from the humblest neighborhood street fair; the juxtapositions are what makes the outfits her own. Now recognized as a fashion icon, Iris—who unabashedly says she loves to be “in and of the world”—negotiates an average of 50 phone calls a day between in-store appearances and shopping sessions.
Apfel makes for an interesting subject, especially when talking about how clothing reflects the politics, science, and history of the times; for her, fashion is a conduit to discussing all of these things. In between such conversations, the movie plays a dutiful personal assistant, tagging along with Apfel during her routines without ever crafting something like a storyline. There’s time in New York and Palm Beach, discussions of how busy she is, and, at one particularly banal moment, a trip to the Home Shopping Network to sell her clothing line. At all times, Iris remains “on” without effort. The film makes it clear how much daily hustle she requires to maintain her partially extravagant lifestyle without getting too worried about the topic.
For Apfel, fashion is a blissful distraction from everything disappointing and exhausting about life. Iris aligns itself with this viewpoint by creating a short, escapist portrait of a woman who’s lived and aged well, and now finds herself routinely celebrated in frequently opulent circumstances. Complementarily designed to revel in the fantasy of its luxurious setting, the film never digs too deep or steps out of line. Viewer entertainment will vary in direct proportion to interest in the unusual but ultimately mundane details of Apfel’s day-to-day. She is, for what it’s worth, good company.