Film and Book Reviews

An encounter with an inspiring nonagenarian

FILMAlbert Maysles’ documentary Iris is a testament both to Maysles’ remarkable skill as a documentarian, and to a truly extraordinary woman.

By Beryl Rule

September 18 2015Albert Maysles’ documentary Iris turned out to be his last; sadly, he died just prior to the film’s release. But what a swansong. It is a testament both to Maysles’ remarkable skill as a documentarian, and to a truly extraordinary woman.

Iris Apfel, business woman, designer and stylist, is 93 years old, and remains an icon who commands the respect of the fashion industry. Her phone can ring over 50 times a day, her appearances and opinions are much sought-after, and no-one ever talks down to this elderly lady. There is none of the diva about her, but under a polite and friendly manner are a toughness and lack of sentimentality. The many conversations she has with a variety of people, all quietly recorded by Maysles so that we, too, feel we are sitting relaxed in the room listening in, show Iris to be a realist. Daily resuming her battle with old age, she is determined to hold fast to a sense of humour and a sense of curiosity – “the two greatest gifts of all”. She “hates sameness”.

While admitting she has reached the stage where, “every day when you get up, one of anything you have two of is aching,” she adds stoically that “you have to push yourself.”

There was the time she had to have immediate surgery for a broken hip. She had tried to put it off because her husband Carl, whose 100th birthday party the film records, “likes to have her around” and she didn’t want him upset. When her doctor insisted treatment must be immediate, she persuaded the ambulance men to keep back the full truth, so that Carl simply thought she had had a fall.

The couple have been married for over 60 years and though there is obviously deep devotion between them they speak about it with the same dry wit.

Carl points out a pair of slippers Iris has made, and quips, “I have a very talented wife. I think I’ll keep her,” while she explains her reasons for accepting his proposal so long ago by: “He was cool, cuddly, and he cooked Chinese.”

Iris is noted for her flamboyant dressing, possesses a staggering array of clothes and loves bargaining at market stalls for more. Her arms clank with bangles, her jewellery, often multi-layered, is large and showy and her spectacles are enormous. But when we see her selecting accessories for a window display in New York, her unerring eye is apparent. Every piece she chooses builds “a look” of undeniable style.

When asked to comment on certain fashion trends, she says crisply, “I don’t sit in judgement on others. It’s better to be happy than well-dressed.”

She and Carl live in an apartment filled with a mad variety of treasures, from valuable artworks to talking toy dogs. Exploring the contents would take weeks and be tremendous fun. “The perfect house for two children,” is a friend’s amused comment.

Others laud her talents, but Iris has the wit to undercut her own celebrity. At the end of the film, she addresses a gathering of admiring friends and associates: “Thank you all for making me what I am today – a geriatric starlet!”