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The Reeler Blog

Karl's in Charge

By Ben Gold

The first thing you see is a room so cluttered with newspapers and magazines they camouflage the floor. In the center is a four-poster bed on which fluorescent bulbs substitute for wooden posts. In another room, a man in a black skin-tight suit and dark sunglasses navigates through a forest of clothing -- a room so dense with shirts and pants it redefines "walk-in closet." He crosses to a dresser; hands clad in fingerless leather gloves rifle through hundreds of ornate chrome rings and explore drawers brimming with starched shirt collars.

In his element: Karl Lagerfeld on the catwalk in Rodolphe Marconi's Lagerfeld Confidential (Photo: Koch Lorber Films)

To some -- OK, most -- it might seem eccentric. In the life of Karl Lagerfeld, the subject of Rodolphe Marconi's artful Lagerfeld Confidential (opening today at Film Forum), it is just the start to another ordinary day.

Lagerfeld built his reputation as a designer at the finest couture houses in Paris, rising to international fame in 1982 after becoming the head designer for Chanel. The brand had faltered since the death of its founder Coco Chanel in 1971, but Lagerfeld single-handedly transformed the label into a source for cutting-edge couture and quickly became one of the most recognizable personalities in the fashion world.

For Confidential, his first documentary, Marconi was granted unprecedented access into Lagerfeld's life. As such, his ambition acquired a proportion relative to his subject. "I wanted to make a beautiful portrait like no one has ever done (about Lagerfeld)," Marconi told The Reeler over coffee at the Soho Grand. "I knew I would be the first and the last. I wanted a film that would stay for all time."

The film trades out basic doc devices like narration and interviews for extended tracking shots punctuated with audio taken from Marconi's own conversations with Lagerfeld. "I didn't want somebody to come and speak about Karl, because it's always the same thing," Marconi said. " 'Oh, Karl is wonderful', is not interesting to me. I wanted to make the film like the audience is me." Marconi spends much of the film trailing his subject from a third person point-of-view, situating the viewer behind Lagerfeld on victory laps along the runway and over his shoulder as he privately sketches out new designs. There is no narrative, no point A or B -- only an ongoing collage of striking images with Lagerfeld at their center.

"For me, cinema is all about sensation," Marconi said. "I'm not telling stories; I don't care about telling stories. I'm just interested in doing pictures -- not video clips, but sensations."

Nor was Marconi interested in producing a biographical piece. Aside from a few archival photos from the designer's childhood in this collage, Marconi set out to create the definitive portrait of a man in a specific place and time. "It was important to speak a little bit about the past because it's funny when he speaks about sexuality or his mother, but I didn't want to make it all about that," he said. "I wanted the film to be similar to him, and Karl does not live in the past."

To capture those moments, though, Marconi had to crack Lagerfeld's inner circle, an infamously tense group the filmmaker found extremely challenging to infiltrate. "Everybody was very jealous, and in the beginning, people were looking at me and saying, 'This guy won't be around in a week.'" He lasted two years. "With Karl there's always something happening, and afterwards I thought all my friends were so boring," Marconi continued.

And who could blame him? This is Karl Lagerfeld -- the man in the skin-tight black suit with sunglasses, chrome jewelry and fingerless leather gloves; the man who daringly claimed: "I don't want to be a reality in people's life; I want to be like an apparition." Indeed, if anything is missing in Lagerfeld Confidential, reality is it.

Posted at October 24, 2007 7:07 AM

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