Before leaving his Paris apartment every day, designer Karl Lagerfeld sorts through a large platter filled with chunky silver rings, deftly slipping his selections onto his fingers until his hands begin to resemble medieval armored gloves. He likes the smell of construction sites, buys iPods like other people pick up paper towels and can sleep only if he's hugging a security pillow to his stomach.
These are a few of the details revealed in "Lagerfeld Confidential," a new documentary on the designer who transformed the ailing Chanel brand into one of the world's most coveted labels and became a celebrity himself along the way.
The 89-minute film, which will debut in Los Angeles on Dec. 14 at Laemmle's Grande 4-Plex theater downtown, is far from an expose. By his own admission, French filmmaker Rodolphe Marconi wasn't concerned with digging up dirt or delving into Lagerfeld's psyche. He was content to silently roll tape while Lagerfeld got on with his busy, rather regimented life, which includes lots of talking on his cellphones, conferring with assistants and riding shotgun in sleek black cars.
The resulting footage lacks much intrigue (the camera dawdles for full minutes on sunsets, ocean waves, etc.) but ultimately offers a portrait of a compulsively creative person who's accustomed to being on top yet is convinced that he will one day be forgotten.
And it seems that as his career has escalated to Mt. Everest-like heights, Lagerfeld's personal life has simmered down to a low hum (he is 74 years old, after all). The designer keeps few close friendships, has no interest in dating and, above all else, prizes solitude "to recharge his battery."
The few sit-down interviews in the film unveil only shards of Lagerfeld's past (as a child he was "spoiled and unbearable," he says, and had a mother whose love had to be earned). Still, you walk away from "Lagerfeld Confidential" feeling as though you've had some one-on-one time with the designer -- his larger-than-life facade having been thinned, if only in a few places.
We caught up with Marconi to talk about his experiences inside the house of Lagerfeld:
Lagerfeld is famously private. How were you able to get the access that you did?
I called his PR and told her I wanted to make a film about him. She said there are 100 people who want to do that, and he always says no. I kept calling and we had two lunches. Then one day she called me and said, "You have lunch tomorrow at Karl's." During lunch, he asked, "What kind of film do you want to do?" I said, "I don't know. I just want to stay as close as possible to you." I didn't want anything to manipulate how it turned out. I wanted audiences to see what I have seen. When I left his house that night, he offered me a jacket with a skull on it and said, "When do you want to begin?" I said I didn't know. He said, "OK, let's start tomorrow." And I knew I had to get a camera and begin.
How long were you trailing him?
I asked to stay with him for four months, and I stayed two years. I had something like 350 hours of footage. For the first year, I was with him every day. In the second year, it was for small [amounts] of time. I was always shooting. You always have this feeling with him that there will be another thing -- that you can have more. So you keep going.
What is your impression of him as a person?
It's very difficult to answer this question, because he's so different all the time. Sometimes he says things so clearly, so straight. Then he will tell you the exact opposite the next day. As a [filmmaker] you always feel like you've never won -- you never got anything. Everything can always change with him. That's why it was difficult. He's very indifferent about so many things -- except himself.
Was anything off-limits to you?
He never told me, "I don't want you to shoot that." There were things, though. One day, he spoke all evening about the big love in his life [French aristocrat Jacques de Bascher, who died of AIDS in 1989], but I didn't have the camera with me. When I began to speak about the sex and love affairs with the camera on, I didn't want to try to get him to say all of that. I knew the story was very personal and there was a lot of sadness for him. I wanted just to respect that.
When he took bows on the runway, you were right on his back with the camera. Was he immediately game to have you do this?
No! I was backstage all night the first time, thinking, "I would love to be with the camera on the catwalk." I asked if I could, and everyone said no, it's not possible. Then three seconds before Karl goes out, I said, "Do you think I can come?" And he looked at me and said nothing -- it was like a secret between him and me. So I went.
The second time it was at a huge fashion show with Nicole Kidman. I did the same thing again, and Karl said no, that it would be very complicated because he had to go pick up Nicole [at the end of the runway]. But when the moment arrived, Karl turned to me and just said, "Go."
He talks about knowing that he was gay at age 11 or so. Did he date anyone within the two years you were filming?
No. He told me one day, "I cannot and I don't want another relationship because it's going to erase the relationship I had [with De Bascher]."
Were you with him when he first saw the film? What was his reaction?
During the editing, I didn't want to see him anymore. So after one year, I called him and said, "I have to show you the film."
I needed Karl's authorization to release the film . . . that was the way I wanted it to be; there was no contract or anything. We sat in a big screening room, just him and me. I was so scared.
When it was over, he turned to me and said that he thought it was very modern and poetic. The most beautiful present was he didn't ask me to cut anything.