It’s difficult to watch Lagerfeld Confidential, a new documentary by the French filmmaker Rodolphe Marconi about Karl Lagerfeld, fashion designer for the house of Chanel since 1983, without comparing it to Douglas Keeve’s 1995 documentary Unzipped, about the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi (whose phoenixlike eponymous label was also, coincidentally, then backed by Chanel). Mr. Keeve has since released two other movies keyed to Seventh Avenue, but neither tickled that industry’s fickle fancy so much as his valentine to the cuddly—and at the time rather chubby—Mr. Mizrahi, his ex-boyfriend: a flamboyant but self-doubting figure with signature bandanna tied around his Little Richard pompadour and a colorful entourage that included the comedienne Sandra Bernhard; the Diana Vreeland manqué, editor Polly Mellen; and a skein of supermodels.
Like Mr. Mizrahi, Mr. Lagerfeld also formerly carried some excess flesh. Here, however, he appears in the twiglike form he’s maintained since a rapid and ostentatious 92-pound weight loss (punctuated by best-selling book) back in 2001. The equivalent of The Bandanna, his famous flickering fan—wags have suggested it was used to camouflage multiple chins—is gone, replaced by dozens of rings and cuff bracelets that the designer pours jangling into a pouch and takes wherever he travels, along with a security blanket from childhood and one of what a press release tells us are his 100-plus iPods. Doesn’t have quite the same iconic oomph, does it?
Along with accessories, Mr. Lagerfeld collects people: the seamstresses who carry out his “vision,” the various sycophants that one accumulates during a lifetime of achievement and a coldly international celebrity coterie (Princess Stephanie of Monaco, occasional Chanel spokesmodel Nicole Kidman) that’s somehow less likable than the cozy, coffee-sipping Manhattan mafia of Unzipped. Veteran of the labels Chloe and Fendi, plus countless independent endeavors, Chanel’s current crown prince claims he is 69, though by peers’ accounts he is 74; his shoulder-length white hair is scraped back into a boyish ponytail, and though his customary uniform is tailored black over stiff white shirts with collar stays, we learn that should the mood strike him, he still might don fingerless gloves and a gaudy gold baseball jacket and go out to the kinds of nightclubs that have hallucinogenic lighting and techno music thumping in the background. You go, grandpa!
Yet despite Mr. Lagerfeld’s obvious vitality and mental agility, he isn’t being captured in his prime as Mr. Mizrahi was, in the suspense of midcareer, and so the movie can’t help but have the air of tribute, a sort of sartorial Irving G. Thalberg award handed out in the nick of time.
Mr. Marconi’s relationship with his subject, moreover, is at once less intimate than Mr. Keeve’s, and more intrusive; he can be heard multiple times asking halting questions about the designer’s homosexuality, for example (only to be contemptuously chided). His herky-jerky camera lingers on Mr. Lagerfeld photographing a high-cheekboned, golden-tressed young male model with fur-wrapped loins, implying—a bit unfairly, it feels—that Mr. Lagerfeld is actually engaged in some kind of … gasp … exploitation here. Yet the latter’s wizened anatomy unfortunately indicates not so much predator as carcass.
Meanwhile, the documentarian layers on generic mortality symbolism with a trowel: waves crashing onto a beach, a piece of paper fluttering in the air high above New York City, one of many barely identifiable locales—is that Monte Carlo or Miami?—to which Mr. Lagerfeld is always swooshing in private jets and limos. Like its subject, the movie is missing a sense of setting, of place. “I don’t have roots,” Karl declares. (Or so the subtitles translate it.) “That’s all bullshit. I just want to stand on my own two feet.” Unlike Mr. Mizrahi, who even at the height of his success had an endearing nail-nibbling quality, Mr. Lagerfeld is a creature of almost ghastly certitude. Authoritative proclamations issued by rag-trade titans are so common now as to seem positively clichéd (see reality TV and the plasticine Devil Wears Prada franchise ), but his (“Fashion is dangerous, ephemeral and unfair”; “I love change; I’m attached to nothing”; “I’m not really interested in the reality of people”; “For people like me, solitude is a victory”) seem less the whimsical bons mots of La Mode than grim Nietzschean aphorisms. Of course, as we are reminded during reminiscences about his childhood, the French-speaking Mr. Lagerfeld is not originally from France, but Germany, and as he stalks around his various quarters—dark interiors with gilt trim and moldings—in knee-high black boots, one can be forgiven for occasionally flashing on the Wehrmacht.
Lagerfeld Confidential could use a soupçon of bouncy American enthusiasm to leaven this Teutonic determination; it’s reasonably entertaining but fundamentally blasé. For all that Mr. Mizrahi was revelatory and optimistic, channeling Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat up in the air, Mr. Lagerfeld is grim and guarded, hiding behind the quintessential fashion crutch: sunglasses indoors.