Haute Mess

House of Gucci loses the thread

Ridley Scott, House of Gucci, 2021,  DCP, sound, color, 158 minutes. Patrizia and Maurizio (Lady Gaga and Adam Driver).

THE HOUSE OF GUCCI trailers and the House of Gucci movie are distinct cultural objects. The former appeared to have been edited in the cutting room of RuPaul’s Drag Race, pouring generously into the bottomless Bellini of camp Lady Gaga serves gay culture. Complete with baffling accent slips (was there a little too much vodka, the commentariat wondered, in Lady Gaga’s penne?), a blasphemous new Holy Trinity, and the foreboding power of a tiny spoon meeting the rim of a demitasse, they achieved cult status months before the film itself even existed.  

That film, written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna and based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction book of the same name, is a comparatively understated Oscar-season drama, abstaining from the maximalism expected from a Gaga-starring, pseudo-Italian family saga dressed in Gucci and soaked in blood. Director Ridley Scott—who made an outsize impact on cinematic aesthetics with Blade Runner’s cyberpunk variations on Edward Hopper, Fritz Lang, and Antonio Sant’Elia, and left an indelible imprint collaborating with H.R. Giger on Alien—has downplayed spectacle with Gucci and crafted an aesthetically forgettable movie that broaches but never quite burrows into commodity fetishism and the cultural and emotional sway of branding. Neither camp carnival nor a late-capitalist parable, it’s mostly just a story, structured like a live-action Wikipedia article. Outbursts of brilliance (Gaga) and brilliant stupidity (Jared Leto in a bald cap and wiggling, padded buttocks; characters repeating their own name, Gucci, so often they sound like Eurotrash Pokémon; road head as a catalytic event) risk being flattened by the monotony of historical timeline storytelling.

Ridley Scott, House of Gucci, 2021,  DCP, sound, color, 158 minutes. Maurizio, Paolo, and Patrizia (Adam Driver, Jared Leto, and Lady Gaga).

Gucci begins with trucking company owner’s daughter Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga) meeting Maurizio Gucci (a subdued Adam Driver) at a costume party, where she first mistakes him for a bartender then nearly does a spit-take upon hearing his name. Later, she tracks him down and marks her territory in lipstick: writing her number on the windscreen of his Vespa. She sincerely likes him—and Gaga immediately lures audiences in with a character whose tenacity is paired with openness and buoyancy, before later curdling into calculation. When she first meets​ Maurizio’s father, debonair retired actor and Gucci co-owner Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), she frantically nods and eagerly listens, like old money’s new intern, earnestly hoping to be deemed worthy of this family and their social rank. She mistakes Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I—which in this reality belongs to Rodolfo Gucci—for a Picasso. She doesn’t know Rodolfo’s films. Rodolfo duly estranges himself from Maurizio, pegging his son’s future bride as a gold digger and a philistine.

The couple move in with Patrizia’s family, and Maurizio enjoys a stint of working-class cosplay at Patrizia’s father’s truck company, having charming water-fights with a fellow truck-hoser and rough sex in uniform with his girlfriend in her dad’s truckyard office. But when Maurizio’s uncle, Aldo (Al Pacino) extends an invitation to them—first to a gathering where a horde of strapping young Guccis flop around wrestling beside the crystalline waters of Lake Como, then to New York where Scott plays peekaboo with Grace Jones and Karl Lagerfeld lookalikes in fleeting shots of exclusive parties—the newlyweds quickly become enmeshed in the family business and the New York glitterati. Aldo courts Maurizio as an heir due to the ineptitude of his own son, Paolo (Leto), and Patrizia’s adjacency to power becomes palpable to her when Rodolfo dies and leaves Maurizio half the company. She develops a growing disgust toward what she perceives as her in-laws’ carelessness with their heirloom influence. Upon learning that Aldo has been illicitly leading the mass manufacture of knockoffs, she catapults into the role of her husband’s unsolicited consultant, casting herself as the protector of Maurizio, his reputation, the sanctity of luxury, and her own hallowed vision of the brand. The line delivery of “Our name, sweetie, on junk”—furiously pointing to her wedding ring and then to a pile of fake Gucci purses—is one of Gaga’s best. 

Ridley Scott, House of Gucci, 2021,  DCP, sound, color, 158 minutes.  Patrizia and Maurizio (Lady Gaga and Adam Driver).

Possessed with innate business acumen but unable to assert it openly within a patriarchal family company, Patrizia shrewdly pits her husband against his uncle and cousin, and his uncle and cousin against each other. Each power play edges Maurizio, in turn, closer to power. Once he’s on a clear path to reaching it, he no longer has any need for her meddling and disposes of her with divorce. She disposes of him harder: Aided by her psychic sidekick (a funny Salma Hayek), she hires a hitman. 

Scott has portrayed worlds in which Russel Crowe is an ancient Roman warrior, Harrison Ford a replicant bounty hunter, Matt Damon a Martian potato farmer; all more emotionally convincing than those in House of Gucci. The portrayals of the titular family members, all fine within their own isolated styles—Driver, naturalistic; Irons, Shakespearean; Pacino, Godfather; Leto, The Klumps—often have difficulty meeting each other. (The same problem beleaguered Scott’s other 2021 movie, The Last Duel, in which he failed to get his actors on the same French Medieval plane.) It doesn’t help, though it is amusing, that Paolo, one of the more prominent characters in the film, is a prosthetic layer cake out of which Leto periodically threatens to pop. Remarkably, Pacino, as a shady businessman with a paternal heart, manages to conjure some tenderness between his character and his silicone-augmented son, who even comes with a catchphrase: “boof.” 

Ridley Scott, House of Gucci, 2021,  DCP, sound, color, 158 minutes. Patrizia and Paolo (Lady Gaga and Jared Leto).

Lady Gaga’s commanding performance, beyond the Ivana Humpalot one-liners amplified by the trailer, redeems the film. Sometime between singing the “Sound of Music” at the 2015 Oscars and telling the Dalai Lama that hatred is an “invisible snake,” Gaga’s celebrity persona became a curious interplay of theater-kid earnestness and the irony and artifice that characterized her early career. Whether playing the art pop prophetess (“One second I’m a Koons / then suddenly the Koons is me”), David Bowie as interpreted by Bette Midler, a Pennsylvanian voting for Joe Biden, or, in recent interviews, a thespian reflecting on the dramatic process (“We made art, and we made art out of pain”), she offers up an endlessly consumable mélange of sincerity and shtick, archness and exuberance, rendering the boundaries between “deliberate” and “naïve” camp, per Sontag’s classic formulation, undecidable. But in A Star Is Born and House of Gucci, her performance comes free of scare quotes. Magnetic and hyper-present as the headstrong Patrizia Regianni, she is as controlled as she is OTT—the latter, always, in service of the character. Her disarming arc from playful to cunning to conniving lends interest to an otherwise bloated two-and-a-half-hour play-by-play of the Gucci family’s history. 

Scott is known for, and boasts about, shooting quickly, using at least four cameras at once. House of Gucci was filmed in forty-two days, which could be why, for a movie about fashion and aesthetics, it feels stylistically under-examined—and for a movie so long, feels so rushed. “I didn’t want to make it into a thriller drama because it’s not,” the director told Deadline. “I saw it more as a satire.” Yet he seldom gives it the room to grow into one. House of Gucci could have found aesthetic and thematic potency in the contradictions and class tensions of its various settings—Milanese café society amid Italy’s so-called Years of Lead, the excess and inequality of Reagan-era New York—but these are treated as backdrops rather than inhabited contexts. 

Ridley Scott, House of Gucci, 2021,  DCP, sound, color, 158 minutes. Aldo (Al Pacino).

Is House of Gucci a satire of the trade it depicts, what Marx once called the “murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”? Only in the most bluntly literal sense—and it doesn’t do much to connect the murder at its core to the industry’s reliance on obsolescence. Only in the film’s postscript does it reveal that the family tragedy, with all members dead or estranged from their legacy, is a brand miracle: Divested from the flesh-and-blood Guccis and revamped by a young Tom Ford, Gucci would go on to exponentially increase in value over the next decades. (Currently owned by the corporation belonging to Hayek’s husband, billionaire businessman and art collector François-Henri Pinault, it was listed in 2020 in Forbes as the world’s thirty-first most valuable brand in any industry.) Is the movie, then, a satire of the ways corporate conglomeration overtakes human legacies? Perhaps, though it would help to care about a single carrier of the Gucci bloodline to give this depersonalization any weight. 

Instead, the unimaginative telling of this particularly sensational story results in a quickly fraying fast fashion film that could have lasted forever. Like the knockoffs Lady Gaga casts her death stare upon, it lives coyly along the increasingly imperceptible line between prestige and junk. 

House of Gucci opened in US theaters on November 24.