October 24, 2007

Lagerfeld Confidential

Largely ephemeral, day-in-the-life doc studded with a few meaty moments

By Michelle Orange

Attaching John Colapinto's excellent March 2007 New Yorker profile of Karl Lagerfeld to the press notes for Lagerfeld Confidential, Rodolphe Marconi's ephemeral documentary about the iconic Chanel fashion designer, feels a little unfortunate. It's a dubious supplement to the film in that it manages to capture, in words, the spirit of the man and his rarified existence almost more effectively than Marconi does with La Lagerfeld and Co. in the flesh.

With Lagerfeld, of course, what Marconi has as a subject is not just an enormously successful man or an ingenious talent but what every documentarian hopes for: a full-blown creature. Marconi is heard in the opening frames, tentatively toeing through the formidable clutter of Lagerfeld's Paris townhouse, and eventually peeping, "Can I come in, Karl?" Well, yes and no. Lagerfeld is amenable enough, though giving that distinctly German impression of suffering Marconi's questioning with impatient good nature. A self-constructed cipher whose supreme confidence and supreme artifice interact on a sliding scale of psychic codependency, Lagerfeld has clearly mastered the art of answering prying questions with perfect frankness while revealing absolutely nothing.

Following Lagerfeld through his endless paces as photographer, designer, shoot director and general orchestrator, Marconi's camera is perpetually in tow; its subject is constantly in transit, getting into and out of cars, forever boarding planes and entering rooms in a hail of fuss and flashbulbs. Combining vérité presumptions of space and subject with more formal techniques, Marconi seems most comfortable at Lagerfeld's feet, hanging on every word (and you will too) as the philosopher queen holds forth on his intricate and yet somehow sublimely simple design for living. He adores and detests all the livelong day and is full of witticisms for his fickle crowd ("sexual freelancers"), religion, relationships and mastering the savage guesswork that rules the world of fashion.

The problem is that there is not much more to the documentary, and while watching Lagerfeld describe his fabuloso mother (he could easily be describing himself) and slough off Marconi's mealy-mouthed questioning about his sexuality is great, filling fun, the gelatinous film suspending those moments is far less satisfying. A photo session involving Nicole Kidman provides a brief hit of voyeuristic fizz, although surely some serious drama was going down somewhere along the line. Watching Lagerfeld quickly sketch a dress design is also a nice little set piece, but the fragments from much of the day-in-the-life footage feel frustratingly devoid of a guiding context.

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It appears that Colapinto was writing his profile as Marconi was filming; a dinner with Princess Caroline is described within that seems to be documented here. In Colapinto's piece the dinner comes alive with intrigue, subtext and character; in the film it is simply another jumble of entourage and air kisses. When Lagerfeld takes up with a male model, a muse of the moment for a book of photos he is working on (another detail intuited from Colapinto's piece), much time is spent lingering over the blond buttercup's Twinkie-free torso (not to mention the curve of his thigh, which Lagerfeld, with almost heartbreakingly precise aestheticism, deems the sum of what he has to offer the world). Marconi does not allow him even a word.

It seems a solidarity too far, as though all who enter Karl's world truly do find themselves converted to his rigid, rigorously bloodless attitudes -- until Marconi settles his camera momentarily on the young man's face as he takes a seat behind the giggling guru in yet another town car. Momentarily useless and duly ignored, the human prop comes alive briefly with a sour glimmer of independent thought -- perhaps even realization -- that his days too are numbered.

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