Have you ever seen Karl Lagerfeld's face? I mean really seen it. For over a decade, he's been a pair of sunglasses wearing a chic old man. His white hair is usually loosely swept behind his head. His signature colors are black and white; his shirt collars rise up high and swallow his neck. The look is disco aristocrat via the French Revolution. Now in his 70s (or depending on whom you ask, his late 60s), he resembles Lauren Bacall and Gena Rowland's illegitimate daughter - glamorous, strange.
In his glasses, Lagerfeld does it all: sketches his latest collection for Chanel, snaps away at his photo shoots, serves dinner - sorry, is served dinner. In "Lagerfeld Confidential," Rodolphe Marconi's admirable attempt to see the superstar behind the glasses, Karl goes so far as to explain that he'd rather be caught pretending to read than be seen reading without the shades. The film is a major disappointment insofar as it doesn't address the distinct possibility that Lagerfeld may well be Dracula - undead and loving it.
Otherwise, it's a serviceable docu-tease. Marconi spent two years following Lagerfeld around the world and asking him questions. We get the impression of intimacy and exclusive access - see Lagerfeld turn in for the night aboard a chartered jet to his Paris home, see him photograph a bashful Nicole Kidman. But we don't come much closer to understanding the man himself. Lagerfeld offers his views on psychoanalysis. He explains why his friendships don't last. He endorses prostitution (it keeps the murder rate down). He even wants to come up with some new way of living a gay life. Marriage is too normal, conservative, and bourgeois. Marconi plays this particular rumination while Lagerfeld sits down to a haute-bourgeois dinner wearing a flowing gray skirt. Very wifey.
Out of brilliant philosophical habit, Lagerfeld resists biography. The closest he's come to memoir is "The Karl Lagerfeld Diet," most of which his Parisian doctor wrote and Lagerfeld endorsed after losing almost a hundred pounds about seven years ago. The book promoted deprivation. It promoted punishment (Lagerfeld is German-born). It promoted getting skinny as hell. The guiding principle was Lagerfeld's own vanity. All he wanted, he said, was to fit into a pair of Dior jeans. The honesty. The heartbreak.
I dwell on the book simply because it's actually insightful where Marconi's movie offers only the illusion of human or psychological insight. The bloated creature who used to turn up at his own fashion shows wagging a Chinese fan has been obliterated. What remains is an amusingly conceited conundrum. The director tosses his subject softballs, and the designer handles them as though he doesn't understand the sport.
Marconi's moviemaking, to his credit, goes for visual lyricism (superimpositions, no narration). He captures the unbeatable surrealism of attending a live Chanel show. He unearths photos of Lagerfeld as a dark-eyed, dark-haired, full-lipped hunk. Essentially, he avoids reducing the designer to the sort of person who'd end up on a Bravo reality show. Anyway, what would the network do with Lagerfeld's references to the Vienna Secession and the sword of Damocles?
The distance between us and the legendary designer might be understandable after all. Lagerfeld has been himself for seven decades. There's no longer a point of entry, no angle from which to see him anew, no way to tell him the rings that cover most of his fingers make him look like a retired cyborg. Lagerfeld is a star in the classic sense. "I want to be an apparition," he says. "I don't want to be real in other people's lives." And this movie sees him through. It's a ghost story.