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‘Iris’: Albert Maysles masterfully profiles a fashion iconoclast

Iris Apfel, with her oversize glasses, enormous jewelry and found-art outfits, is one of those glorious creatures who could exist only in New York.

The 93-year-old self-described “geriatric starlet” is the subject of “Iris,” one of the last films by the great documentarian Albert Maysles, who died in March at 87.

Apfel has been a figure on the New York fashion scene forever, but never a slave to it; the film reveals her delightful iconoclastic streak. She has no use for conformity or looking like anyone else. Her style is her own and that’s how she wants it.

But there is more to Maysles’ film than just finding the right look. Her individualistic streak extends to all aspects of her life. It sounds vaguely condescending to use such terms as “spry” to describe Apfel, but they fit. She is remarkably energetic, and plainspoken, puncturing all of the pretension that permeates high fashion. She simply has no time or use for that kind of thing.

She’s busy being herself.

Maysles follows her around, his masterful photography central to his storytelling as usual. He’s a part of the film, too — Apfel talks to him off camera from time to time and introduces him to friends and acquaintances. The movie is about her, but it’s also about Maysles, who shows no discomfort at being involved in the proceedings.

The film plays like a refreshingly frank visit with a favorite relative. Apfel gives us some basic biographical information: She was born in the New York borough of Queens. She and her husband, Carl, owned a textile company and traveled, seemingly constantly, with Apfel always on the lookout for more stuff. And really, that’s the right word for a lot of what she’s collected — and continues to collect, as Maysles accompanies her on a few shopping trips around New York.

Fashion designers and editors sing Apfel’s praises, and some time is spent on the enormously popular 2005 exhibit of some of her belongings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the best part of the film is when Apfel talks about life — her life, and her life with Carl, who turns 100 during filming. During these moments, a vulnerability comes through in Apfel’s voice — and she sounds all the stronger for it.

A brief, unsolicited speech about beauty, or more accurately, Apfel’s self-proclaimed lack of it and utter lack of use for it, is off-the-cuff brilliance, poking holes in the idea of vanity with razor-sharp insight. It should be required viewing for the cult of Kardashian followers.

That’s what’s so wonderful about “Iris.” Maysles gets to the heart of what is important to Apfel: truth, in a world in which it’s in increasingly short supply.

[s3r star=3/4]

Magnolia Pictures presents a film documentary directed by Albert Maysles. Running time: 78 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language). Now showing at the Music Box Theatre.