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‘Iris’ Will Open Your Eyes

Style icon Iris Apfel charms in this fascinating documentary

Iris

Courtesy of Bruce Weber/Magnolia Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
Star: Iris Apfel
Director: Albert Maysles

There’s so much to love about Iris that it’s hard to know where to begin. One of the last works of famed documentary director Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), who died last month at 88, 'Iris' is his love letter to style icon Iris Apfel — who, at 93, continues to wow people with her unique looks.

Shot over four years, the film follows Apfel as she rides the crest of international renown, which kicked off in earnest when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted a 2005 exhibition of her clothing “improvisations.” That show — “Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” — thrust her eclectic style into the spotlight. People stampeded the exhibit to view her collections, which pair designer clothing with flea-market finds, all extravagantly accessorized.

“Life is gray and dull, and you might as well have a little fun when you dress,” says Apfel, making her way — sometimes via wheelchair — to events held in her honor all over Manhattan and beyond. Along with her husband, Carl (who celebrates his 100th birthday during the film), Apfel started an interior-design firm in 1950; the couple then scoured the world for unique treasures, now part of the design legacy being discovered by fashionistas everywhere.

Maysles interweaves home movies and personal photographs into this fascinating story of two lives well lived — and surrounded by beautiful things. Apfel is clearly the star, but Carl was right by her side as the duo forged a successful business, designing and decorating for businesses, socialites and every U.S. president from Truman to Clinton.

With her slim build and her unique sense of style, Apfel slowly acquired a reputation as a fashion icon, inspiring Manhattanites to emulate every aspect of her look, right down to her signature round, oversize black glasses. But what the film so lovingly shows is the personal renaissance that continues to buoy Apfel long after the couple retired. Who couldn’t love the tale of a nonagenarian becoming the toast of the town and a global arbiter of style?

The life of Iris Apfel is a blur of action today, from teaching fashion at the University of Texas and launching an accessories business to dispensing style advice to avid groups of 20-something women. Her self-styled description — “I’m a geriatric starlet!” — cracks up every audience.

But there’s more to the film than mere fabulous fashion. As we watch Iris and Carl figure out how to face the realities of aging, it’s evident that director Maysles has imbued 'Iris' with a subtle but unavoidable subtext throughout.

Physical limitations beset them both, but each keeps moving optimistically forward. The couple’s numerous homes (to say nothing of their gargantuan merchandise warehouse) are chockablock with items collected over the decades; as Apfel begins to clear them out, nostalgia overcomes her. No matter what they are doing, each moment along the way is permeated with an awareness that time is precious.

As an homage to vivacity and verve, Iris reinforces the notion that staying busy can keep your outlook bright. “It’s better to be happy than well dressed,” Apfel wisely reminds the viewer. “I’m vertical, so I’m so happy!”

Jenny Peters is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist.

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